Virtual suspensions. Mask rules. More trauma. Why some worry a student discipline crisis is on the horizon

Jazzmin Turman waits on her two children to pick up school supplies and masks during a California back-to-school fair in August 2020.
Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As America’s students head back into their virtual or real-life classrooms, new rules await.

In Jacksonville, Florida, students who don’t wear a mask repeatedly could be removed from school and made to learn online. In some Texas districts, intentionally coughing on someone can be classified as assault. In Memphis, minor misbehaviors could land students in an online “supervised study.”

It’s amounting to a flood of changes to school rules and discipline codes at a time of heightened stress for students, parents, and teachers.

Those rules reflect schools’ attempts to make learning during a pandemic safe and possible. But the increased attention to student misbehavior has advocates and many parents very worried that students who were disproportionately removed from classrooms before the pandemic — namely Black and Native students, and students with disabilities — will bear the brunt of these new consequences, undermining schools’ promises to provide students from hard-hit communities with extra social and emotional support.

“We have seen and felt the impact of having a Black child with learning differences and how that’s been treated disciplinarily. So I’ve got a lot of concerns,” said Cassandra Kaczocha, a parent of a son headed into eighth grade in Chicago, where schools are set to start virtually and monitor student engagement over a six-hour school day. “He can’t sit there and look at the screen the whole time and give the appropriate cues to the teacher that he’s paying attention.”

And at a time when many students are already struggling emotionally and have missed a lot of instruction, harsh discipline or removing students could have particularly worrisome consequences.

“It is the definition of taking a crisis and making it worse,” said Liz King, who directs the education equity program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella organization of civil rights groups. “We need to find better ways to support children and better ways to support families. That was always true, but the urgency now is just incomparable.”

Why people are worried

Schools across the country have promised that they will focus on addressing students’ social and emotional needs as they head back to school — in some cases prioritizing that before getting students back on track academically in recognition of the toll taken by both the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s ongoing reckoning with its history of racism and the police killings of Black Americans.

But parents and educators are still worried that the pandemic could set off a new wave of harsh discipline for students.

Schools are under a lot of added pressure to keep students and educators safe, and some kinds of misbehavior could carry big health risks. Removing a face mask or intentionally coughing on others could spread illness. Even a public display of affection in a high school hallway could now be considered a safety risk, said Dan Losen, who directs the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, part of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Teachers, many worried about their own health, may be on edge, perhaps leaving students less room for error.

On top of that, it’s likely there will be an uptick in misbehavior. With their movement restricted, students will have fewer avenues to de-stress. Some students will be experiencing new or added trauma, which can cause students to act out.

Several advocates said they were especially worried about Black, Hispanic, and Native children, whose families have experienced higher levels of illness and death during the pandemic. Those communities’ experiences have differed, but in many cases they’ve also faced higher rates of job or economic loss as well as food insecurity.

Students may disrupt classrooms, need more attention from their teachers, or have “some real anger about how this situation has impacted themselves and their family” and not be able to express that, said Miranda Johnson, a clinical professor of law at Loyola University Chicago who studies school discipline.

That makes learning harder, and teachers will have fewer tools at their disposal. Typical interventions like pats on the back or close-up chats are harder now. And while some schools are still holding restorative peace circles to hash out conflicts, it’s unclear how effective those are in a virtual or socially distanced setting.

Another issue: School officials say that decisions about whether a student should be disciplined will often come down to figuring out their intent, which is hard to do even in normal times. Such subjective decisions have also been a key driver of racial disparities in school discipline.

Johnson worries students of color who act out will be labeled as “defiant” while white students will be perceived as in need of social and emotional support.

Nationally, Black students and students with disabilities are much more likely than their peers to be suspended or expelled from school, while Native students also face higher-than-average rates of exclusionary discipline.

“All the situations that we know make people vulnerable to bias exist in this situation,” Johnson said. “High stress situations, people are at their limits both professionally and personally, lots of discretion in these decisions because there’s not clear guidance, and everyone is sort of making things up as they go.”

How schools are planning

As the new year begins, schools are adjusting student codes of conduct to account for the complexities of the coronavirus.

Take wearing a face mask. Failure to wear one will be classified as a dress code violation in several districts, with escalating consequences for repeat offenses. That’s the case in Duval County, Florida, where the first time a student doesn’t wear a mask, they’ll have to fill out a safety contract. By the fourth time, a student could be removed from in-person schooling.

The schools chancellor in New York City, Richard Carranza, said earlier this month that students who don’t comply with face mask requirements will be barred from in-person learning.

Though in some places, the consequences could be criminal. In Utah, students and staff who don’t wear a face mask could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Another common revision to student codes of conduct are consequences if a student intentionally spits, sneezes, or coughs on someone else. In some Texas school districts, like Fort Worth ISD and the Houston-based Spring ISD, it will be treated as a type of assault.

In both places, school officials would quickly remove the involved students from their classroom and try to figure out whether the behavior was done on purpose. In Spring ISD, if a student takes off their mask before spitting or coughing, school officials will assume the act was intentional, according to district documents, which could result in a suspension.

In the Weld RE-4 district based in Windsor, Colorado, officials have warned that students who come to school while awaiting a COVID test result will be suspended.

Remote learning has spawned other new rules or warnings that students will be held to similar standards as they would be in school while at home, particularly around dress code and their work spaces.

In Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis, that means no pajamas, hats, or hoods on screen, and students’ shirts must have sleeves. (The district is providing “flexibility” on clothing bottoms and footwear when a student’s full body won’t be seen on video.) Other rules might be even tougher to follow: The district is also requiring students’ work stations to be clear of “foreign objects” and says students shouldn’t eat or drink during virtual classes.

A high school senior follows a remote Advanced Placement Calculus class as her cousin plays with his phone while sitting in a Los Angeles community garden in August 2020.
Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

School districts are also making decisions about whether and when students can be muted in an online classroom, lose access to email or online privileges, or be virtually suspended or expelled. Several education advocates said they were worried that new forms of discipline online may look like a suspension in practice, but not be tracked that way or released as part of a district’s usual discipline data — potentially leaving parents and the public in the dark.

“We’re looking at ways school districts might be informally excluding students, like ‘Don’t come back to the Google Meet or the Zoom room for a couple days,’” said Johnson, of Loyola University Chicago. “If that were to happen in an in-person setting, it would be considered a suspension. So I think, similarly, it should be considered a suspension if it’s happening remotely.”

In Memphis, a new virtual code of conduct encourages teachers to avoid removing students completely from a virtual class. But if students are too disruptive, teachers can limit student audio or video, and students can be placed in a short online “supervised study” for minor misbehaviors or a supervised virtual suspension for more serious ones.

In Chicago, a recent revision to the student code of conduct allows principals to block a student’s access to email or the district’s online programs if the student is disruptive or creates “an unsafe learning environment.” The policy says a student can’t be blocked indefinitely and that privileges should be restored once there’s a plan to address the safety issue.

It’s unclear exactly how schools will be held accountable for those moves. The district says it will track principal requests to restrict students’ online access, but losing access for a full day won’t count as a suspension.

And then there are the most severe cases: parents who’ve been referred to social services when their children don’t participate in remote learning. In Massachusetts, as the Boston Globe recently documented, school officials reported dozens of families to state social workers for possible neglect. Often, their children attended school districts that predominantly serve Black and Hispanic students from low-income families.

“Given all that we know about the racial contours of the digital divide and the homework gap, it is just indefensible to apply a punishment framework to children who are not connecting with their classroom teacher,” said King, of The Leadership Conference.

Some schools are trying be proactive, but questions remain

Some school districts are crafting plans for how to handle misbehavior in ways that don’t exclude students from the virtual or regular classroom.

In Spring ISD, the district where intentionally spitting or coughing on someone will now be classified as assault, some 35,000 students from the Houston area began the new school year remotely this week. The district recently held a virtual training for principals about handling student behavior, where Superintendent Rodney Watson said trainers pushed educators to think about whether their strategies could contribute to existing inequities.

The district also identified students “that had a lot of infractions last year,” Watson said, and is targeting them for extra support this year.

“We’re going to be really looking at that from a prevention side,” Watson said. “We really want to make sure that someone’s acting out is not a product of their basic needs not being met.”

Spring ISD also plans to collect and examine data on COVID-related infractions, broken down by race, gender, and economic status. District officials will use that to watch for possible disparities and decide if policies need changing, Watson said.

Winford Adams, Jr. a Spring ISD school board member and parent of three children in the district, said he’ll be watching to make sure the district regularly provides that data — “If it isn’t, I will ask for it to be,” he said. He’s especially concerned about how the new coronavirus-related rules could affect students with disabilities.

“We want to make sure we’re protecting our teachers from exposure, and we want to have clear guidelines for conduct, but I have a concern about some of those kids,” he said.

To Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, the director of educational equity and a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, the risk is that old patterns will repeat themselves during the year ahead. But this could be a moment for schools to do things like relax dress codes or rethink suspension and expulsion policies, she said.

“Now is the time that we start to undo those things,” she said. And to “actually get at whatever trauma or stress students are bringing into the classroom, whether virtual or physical, and try to provide that counseling or those supports to help them through it.”

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