Magazine Feature

Toolkit for Cruel and Unusual

School discipline practices often disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Use this toolkit to form a professional learning community that reflects, researches and plans together to create a more just and equitable behavior management system in your school. 

School practices related to discipline, restraint and seclusion do not occur in a vacuum. Existing social inequalities and oppressions affect the frequency and severity of disciplinary practices, which tend to disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. Educators can examine practices and institutions, identify assumptions and inequities and create more equitable systems. 


Essential Questions

  1. Do my school’s current discipline policies and outcomes reflect or reinforce existing social inequalities and systems of oppression? If so, how?
  2. Do my school’s discipline polices align with and incorporate the cultural values and voices of our students, families and the community we serve?
  3. How can my school involve students, families and the wider community in creating, defining and maintaining a respectful, inclusive school culture?

To start this work, teachers, administrators and counselors should form a professional learning community (PLC) that will reflect, research and plan together to create an equitable and culturally responsive discipline policy. 


Step One: Reflect

  1. Look at your school data. 

  • How many students were suspended last year? Physically restrained? Isolated from their peers as a form of discipline?
  • Do you notice any disparities in terms of race, socioeconomic status or ability in the rate or percent of students who were suspended? Restrained? Isolated?
  • In what ways is the current behavior management system a proactive approach focused on prevention, engagement and rewards? 
  • In what ways is the current system more of a reactive approach focused on consequences and punishments?
  1. Discuss the school’s current behavior management system.


Step Two: Research

  1. Share the article “Cruel and Unusual” with the PLC. The article profiles one school’s use of a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) approach to create a safe, affirming and productive learning environment.

  1. To support schools in taking that approach further, the Equity Alliance authored a report titled Culturally Responsive Positive Behavioral Support Matters. This report challenges schools and teachers to create a PBIS approach that fully incorporates and affirms the cultural values and practices of students, families and the surrounding community. Read the report, and discuss these questions as a group:
  • Do significant differences exist between the culture of our school and the culture(s) of our students, families and the surrounding community?
  • If so, how do school policies affirm the normative values of our school culture? 
  • Do any school policies or school norms conflict with the values of the surrounding community? If so, how?
  • How are the values and cultures of our students and families incorporated into our school policies, norms and culture?
  • How could our school involve students, families and the surrounding community in creating culturally responsive practices around expectations, behavior and school norms?


Step Three: Plan

  1. After reflecting and researching together as a learning community, consider creating an action plan for creating, defining and maintaining a more respectful, inclusive school culture. Possible first steps include:
  • Set up focus groups with students and parents to get feedback about the current school culture and discipline practices.
  • Study the practices of several other schools that promote and maintain respectful, inclusive school cultures.
  • Create a professional development workshop that allows teachers and administrators to unpack their own cultural assumptions and discover how these assumptions may affect school culture and disciplinary practices. 
  1. Continue meeting, reflecting on your school’s data, researching new approaches to improving school culture and planning for ongoing professional development and, if possible, PBIS implementation.
Add to an Existing Learning Plan
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