Backlash Against Disciplinary Action Turns Focus to School Counselors

Here are some surprising statistics about school discipline today:

American schools’ embrace of zero tolerance policies and mandatory punishment for everything from guns to gum has led to big spikes in disciplinary rates. A study of 1 million Texas public-school students found that between 7th and 12th grades, nearly 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once, and some were disciplined a dozen times or more.

Now a backlash is gaining steam to ditch the most punitive practices in favor of more effective responses to disruptive or dangerous students. The new approach calls for proactive and individualized intervention, mental health and behavioral therapy and teaching children and adolescents concrete ways to change their attitudes and actions. It also will require more school counselors.

In some cases, counselors have more specialized training to handle the range of intellectual, emotional and physical issues that often underlie disruptive behaviors.

But as schools increase security with more school resource officers, the need for school counselors is deprioritized. Houston’s public schools, for example, have one counselor for every 1,175 students, according to the news site The 74. Nationwide, 1 in 5 high school students lacks access to a counselor at school. The American School Counselor Association recommends at least one counselor for every 250 students. (Link:

Amir Whitaker, a research associate at The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, criticized school districts for overspending on enforcement.

School administrators are “basically using the tools of mass incarceration … to police [and] criminalize students instead of lowering the counselor ratio,” Whitaker told USC Rossier’s online masters in school counseling program blog.

Research shows the emphasis on zero tolerance and harsh disciplinary actions can leave both offenders and their classmates worse off than before. Schools in Colorado, Georgia and elsewhere found that the number of student infractions handed off to juvenile detention and other law enforcement authorities rose in tandem with the number of school resource officers. More of the offenses were minor matters like swearing that previously might have been dispatched by principals or other administrators.

The impact and stigma on disciplined students can be long-lasting and deep. Studies show they’re more likely than their peers to be suspended again, graduate later or drop out altogether. And for the schools, overall academic achievement tended to decline as suspension and expulsion rates increased.

Advocates for disciplinary reforms say schools can deploy counselors in many ways. One evidence-based program trains a team of counselors, school psychologists and others to objectively differentiate serious threats from those a student is unlikely to carry out.

Other alternatives include intervening before a student’s substance-abuse problems grow serious. Another is to set up community-school partnerships to keep students engaged in school by tending to their needs beyond the classroom, including free medical care and safe housing.

There is also a sort of reverse zero-tolerance policy. More school districts are banning the use of suspensions for less serious infractions like smoking, skipping class or “willful defiance.” Instead, teachers and administrators are required to find alternative ways to hold the students to account. The results from Baltimore, Los Angeles and elsewhere show that suspension and dropout rates plummeted and graduation rates rose.

Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.

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