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Last modified: Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Statewide effort with an individualized response recommended to solve school discipline problem

New policy report addresses high Indiana expulsion, suspension rates

Dec. 18, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The state of Indiana should develop a support structure that helps schools work better on their own specific issues with discipline, according to a new report by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, both at Indiana University.

"Improving School Climate and Student Behavior: A New Paradigm for Indiana Schools" offers recommendations to ease the problems with discipline that are statistically worse in Indiana than most other states. Four years ago, U.S. Department of Education numbers placed the state as No. 1 in student expulsions as a percentage of enrollment. Indiana was ninth nationally in suspensions.

Too often, the report's authors found, schools rely on hard and fast rules such as "zero tolerance," which might not work for many students.

"We tend to make assumptions that students know what respect means, or that they have learned how to behave in certain settings," said Sandi Cole, director of the IIDC's Center on Education and Lifelong Learning (CELL) and co-author of the report. "So based on those assumptions then, we're fairly reactive."

Students don't learn from being automatically suspended from school for a day, said report co-author Sandy Washburn, research associate for CELL.

"So the parent comes in and the interaction is about 'Your child is going to spend the next day at home,'" she said, "as opposed to the parent coming in and someone working with the parent on learning a different way." Washburn added such punishment doesn't have the same impact on each student. "We're all reinforced by different things and we're all punished by different things," she said. "So the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't necessarily result in changing the behavior."

Sandy Washburn

Sandy Washburn

Print-Quality Photo

The study recommends a statewide initiative to implement School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports, a three-tiered proactive and preventive approach to discipline now used in 41 states. Washburn described it as a building-based plan that follows a set framework, but can adjust for each school.

"There are essential pieces, but those will look different in different schools based on what their own needs are," she said.

Some Indiana school districts have implemented Positive Behavior Supports with positive results. The report cites a Central Indiana elementary school that reported disciplinary referrals dropped by more than 800 incidents in the first year of implementation. In that school, the report estimated the school principal gained 211 hours of administrator time as a result.

But the report emphasizes state support is critical for successful implementation. "I think if you look to what other states are doing, often it's a partnership between university, mental health, state departments of education," Washburn said. Those states have established an organizational structure that includes offering training to schools and often a state coordinator along with regional coordinators.

Cole, a former school administrator and special education teacher, said she is optimistic the state has the ability to follow the example of other states and implement a successful statewide program.

"We have a fair number of leaders who understand school-wide Positive Behavior Supports," she said. "I think the pieces are there."

Cole and Washburn co-authored the report along with Kimberlee J. Stowe, school psychologist for Mooresville Consolidated School Corp., and James Robinson, graduate assistant for CELL. The full report is available at Behavior Supports 120707.pdf.

The mission of the IIDC is to work with communities to welcome, value and support the meaningful participation of people of all ages and abilities through research, education and service. More information is available at

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous nonpartisan program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The center's Web site is located at

MEDIA OUTLETS: The following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at Look for the story headline under "Podcasts."

Cole says administrators and teachers need something to demonstrate discipline in a better way for students:

"We tend to make assumptions that kids know what respect means, or they know how to behave in certain settings. So based on those assumptions then, we're fairly reactive with issues around behavior or kids who bring behavior issues to us as opposed to this approach which would say, 'Don't make those assumptions.' We teach (that) there's an instructional component to behavior. We also need to set up structures and systems that are proactive around students and adults in schools. So from where I sat before in that administrator's chair, it is a shift in how we think about dealing with behavior and understanding that we can't make the assumptions that many students understand when we say things like 'Respect each other.'"

Washburn says standard policies aren't necessarily going to work for each student:

"So a student is sent to the office for threatening behavior, which happens to be in some schools on a list of a zero tolerance policy, so the automatic response would be out of school for a day. We don't think students learn anything from that. They don't learn how to do anything different when frustrated, or when angered by a classmate or when responding to maybe a misbehavior from a classmate that a teacher didn't see. So the parent comes in and the interaction is about 'Your child is going to spend the next day at home,' as opposed to the parent coming in and someone working with the parent on 'we have to learn a different way and that's going to be the response to this first incident.' We're going to do some actual teaching around frustration."

To change problem behaviors, schools may have to react differently to different students, Washburn says:

"And if you just look at basic principles of behavior, the laws of behavior, we're all reinforced by different things and we're all punished by different things. So the one-size fits-all approach of behavior A equals consequence B, whether that be a positive consequence or a negative consequence, doesn't necessarily result in changing the behavior according to the laws of behavior."

Many other states have established the framework to successfully implement Positive Behavior Supports, Washburn says:

"I think if you look to what other states are doing, often it's a partnership between university, mental health, state departments of education and they figured out ways to provide an organizational structure that would include offering the training to schools and saying 'You know, but if you want to do this there's certain commitments you have to make and there's certain evidence that the district is going to support this.' I think those are the kinds of structures that we're talking about. Some states have a statewide coordinator of the work and then some regional coordinators; some states have a whole statewide leadership team that's making these decisions. Indiana ranks first, I think, in suspensions and expulsions, so seems to me that Department of Ed might want to get behind something that would look at shifting those numbers."