Exclusionary discipline practices have devastating impacts on the lives of youth of color. Research demonstrates the inextricable link between disproportionate usage of exclusionary discipline, racial achievement disparities, and Black and Brown youth’s entanglement in the school-to-prison pipeline. Furthermore, ineffective discipline is a primary contributor to crisis-level teacher turnover in urban schools, leading to school wide underachievement. In response, the Just Discipline Project (JDP), is a research-to-practice holistic school transformation initiative designed to reduce the over-reliance on exclusionary discipline in schools serving students of color. To date, the program has been successful at reducing suspension use and improving school climate and student achievement. The purpose of this study presented here was to understand how teachers experienced the implementation of the JDP model during the first-year pilot. Our research questions were: 1) In what ways did JDP impact teachers’ perceptions of the relational climate at the pilot school? And 2) What factors do teachers believe led to success or difficulty in implementing the JDP at the school?
Data was collected through 10 semi-structured qualitative interviews with teachers and staff at the pilot school. Interview participants were selected through maximum-variation purposive sampling to gain insight from a variety of perspectives; varietal factors included number of years teaching, grade level, subject matter expertise, self-identified race and gender. Interviews were held at the end of the year, lasted approximately 45-60 minutes, and were conducted by one or two members of the research team. Interviews were transcribed, read and analyzed by all team members, and findings were derived through consensus of themes present in the data.
Overall, we found that Just Discipline had a positive impact on the pilot school’s relational climate. Teachers overwhelmingly appreciated the creation of a student leadership group, and enjoyed seeing how student leaders took on responsibilities in the classroom and served as advocates and mediators for their peers. Teachers shared that the full-time JDCM staff member, who is an MSW and has a similar demographic background to many of their students, was a major benefit in supporting students emotionally and helping students resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. Additionally, teachers felt that implementing weekly community circles helped build relationships in classrooms. Supplemental data corroborates teacher perspectives with evidence that suspensions and referrals decreased significantly in the first year. Challenges to implementation included the school’s existing discipline system and philosophy, layered and inflexible mandates from the district, and lack of sufficient time for program elements.
Conclusions and Implications
Our findings demonstrate that challenges that plague urban schools nationwide can be reduced by focusing on developing positive relational environments, and tailoring discipline systems to then leverage a relational framework. Building strong relationships is critical in schools serving underrepresented racial groups and economically disadvantaged youth. These results have implications for social workers to partner with schools through holistic models like the JDP, which aligns with the Grand Challenges of by ensuring the healthy development of youth and eradicating social isolation in school spaces.