ERIC Identifier: ED259455
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Gushee, Matt
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene OR.

Student Discipline Policies. ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management: ERIC Digest, Number Twelve.

Educational policymakers and administrators must choose from a bewildering variety of discipline models and techniques. Legal intervention and contradictory research findings further complicate the matter. There is, therefore, no cut-and-dried solution to student behavior problems. Rather, discipline policies must be based on community values and on their makers' best judgment of students' welfare.


A school discipline policy can help prevent and control student behavior problems by coordinating the school's disciplinary procedures and by informing students what types of behavior are expected of them and what types are forbidden.

Such a policy, however, has inherent limitations. On the one hand, many disruptions occur in the classroom and are inseparable from the student-teacher relationship. On the other hand, even the best policy is only a document, and how it is carried out is at least as important as what it says. According to a growing body of literature, the primary determinant of discipline policy effectiveness is a healthy relationship between school and student--as indicated by such variables as principals' leadership styles and students' perceptions of whether or not they are fairly treated.

With the above limits in mind, we can define the basic functions of discipline policy. Ben Brodinsky, for example, states these functions as follows (1980):

--Informing the reader of the school board's discipline philosophy

--Placing responsibility for policy enforcement

--Specifying offenses and fixing their seriousness


American schools have traditionally dealt with student misbehavior by checking it as it arose, usually through punishment. In recent years, however, suspension and corporal punishment, the two most common punitive methods, have increaseingly come under fire. Corporal punishment, many believe, psychologically harms students and presents great potential for abuse if applied maliciously or in anger. Suspension may discriminate against racial minorities, remove from school those students who most need to be in school, and actually reward some by giving them a "holiday."

Common sense as well as some research argues powerfully for prevention. With fewer day-to-day discipline problems, schools would become more "productive" and educate happier, healthier individuals. Critics claim that preventive methods like incentive programs and counseling are costly and ineffective, whereas punishment at least reduces immediate disruptions. In-school suspension, having both punitive and preventive aspects and often incorporating counseling, may be effective against some types of misbehavior, but it, too, is subject to many of the criticisms noted above.

There is currently no firm scientific basis for choosing one discipline method over another. For now, practical, moral, and legal considerations must guide educators' choices.


In the late 1960's and early 1970's, a number of court decisions limited schools' ability to punish students and prohibited them from restricting student activities protected by the First Amendment. Many educators see these decisions as impairing their ability to maintain appropriate discipline; the due process requirements established by Goss v. Lopez for student suspension are particularly controversial.

Although the law clearly affects the content of discipline policy and indeed has spurred school systems to create more explicit and comprehensive policies, the courts have intervened only reluctantly and have confined their decisions to clear violations of students' constitutional rights. Due process requirements are not stringent. Moreover, suggests Goldsmith (1982), due process may improve discipline in a very immediate sense: disciplinarians are better able to set appropriate penalties when incidents and causes are clarified in pre-suspension hearings. In any case, the courts have stripped schools of little, if any, legitimate authority.

Indirect effects of legal intervention may be much more harmful. Lufler (1979) argues that the debate over discipline has been guided by an incorrect analogy between school discipline and criminal justice. This false analogy has caused schools to turn to inappropriate penalties, to overreact to minor offenses, and to blame students for problems that may originate in the school environment. Rather than treating school discipline problems as legal problems, policy makers and researchers should look closely at the purposes and the functioning of discipline systems.

Should schools attempt to be fair to each student, or should they curtail the rights of the disruptive minority to maintain an orderly school environment for the majority? This question, which involves the fundamental values of our society, runs through both the theoretical and legal debates outlined above and is crucial to selecting disciplinary strategies.


Each school, each student, and each situation is unique. There is no single solution to discipline problems. A few broad recommendations emerge from the literature, however.

--Information. Policies must be aimed at factual problems, not rumors. School districts should gather accurate data on student behavior in their schools before setting policy

--Involvement. All groups affected by a policy should be involved in creating it--in this case, the students who must conform to the policy, the school personnel who must enforce it, and, ideally, students' families and other community members

--Problem definition. Policy-makers cannot assume that everyone agrees on what constitutes undesirable student behavior. Defining the problem is the first step toward solving it

--Flexibility. Rather than relying on a rigid system of penalties, policy should allow for different situations and prescribe different methods for different problems

--Communication. All students, parents, and school personnel should be aware of the school's discipline policy or student conduct code. A readable and well-designed student handbook is a widely used tool for informing students

--Consistent enforcement. If students are to cooperate with a discipline code, they must believe they will be treated fairly.


Brodinsky, Ben. STUDENT DISCIPLINE: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS. AASA CRITICAL ISSUES REPORT. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators, 1980. ED 198 206.

deJung, John, and others. STUDENT DISCIPLINE POLICY IN MIDDLE SCHOOLS. Eugene, OR: Center for Educational Policy and Management, University of Oregon, 1984.

Duke, Daniel L., and Vernon F. Jones. ASSESSING RECENT EFFORTS TO REDUCE STUDENT BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, April 11-15, 1983. ED 233 440.

Goldsmith, Arthur H. "Codes of Discipline: Developments, Dimensions, Directions." EDUCATION AND URBAN SOCIETY 14 (February 1982):185-196.

Harris, J. John III, and others. A LEGAL-HISTORICAL EXAMINATION OF STUDENT DISCIPLINE: ALTERNATIVE TRENDS IN EDUCATIONAL POLICY. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educatioal Research Association, Los Angeles, April 13-17, 1981. ED 203 507.

Kaeser, Susan C. "Suspensions in School Discipline." EDUCATION AND URBAN SOCIETY 11 (August 1979):450-464.

Lufler, Henry S., Jr. "Debating with Untested Assumptions: The Need to Understand School Discipline." EDUCATION AND URBAN SOCIETY 11 (August 1979):450-464.

National School Boards Association. STUDENT DISCIPLINE: PRACTICAL APPROACHES. Washington, D.C., 1979. ED 177 691.

Wu, Shi-Chang, and others. STUDENT SUSPENSION: A CRITICAL REAPPRAISAL. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education, 1980. ED 224 087.


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