IU professors contribute to Supreme Court case on punishing student speech

BLOOMINGTON- How to discipline students, both in and outside of school, is an ongoing debate among legislators, school administrators, parents, and students.

That debate has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court following the suspension of a cheerleader who posted a curse-filled message on Snapchat. While free speech is at the heart of the case, two Indiana University researchers say an equally key issue is the continual use of zero-tolerance policies by schools when research has shown that they don’t work.

“Looking at this case, our question is why a zero-tolerance approach was used, when such approaches have been discredited as ineffective for both general behavior and bullying in particular,” said Russ Skiba, a professor emeritus of education at IU Bloomington, who provided the outline for an amicus brief from school discipline researchers submitted in the Supreme Court case.

Russ Skiba  

The matter before the Court in Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L is the extent to which public schools can regulate student speech when it occurs off-campus.

The case involves a then-junior varsity cheerleader in Pennsylvania. When she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team, she posted some curse words and a middle finger photo on Snapchat during after-school hours from a convenience store. Someone showed the post to the cheerleading coach, and the teen was suspended from the team for a year.

The student and her family sued the school district, saying the removal violated her constitutional freedom of speech. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled for the student, holding that schools are not allowed to punish off-campus speech.

Skiba, a recognized expert on school violence and the overuse of exclusionary discipline, noted that zero tolerance policies “make the assumption that punishing minor misbehavior with severe consequences will have a deterrent effect, but the research shows that it has serious unintended consequences for punished students, such as school disengagement, dropping out, and increased contact with the juvenile justice system.”

“When you subject students to punishments that are out of line with their behavior, you get consequences that are also out of line,” Skiba said.

Brea Perry

IU Bloomington Professor Brea Perry, a sociologist in the College of Arts and Sciences, also contributed to the school discipline amicus brief for the case. Like Skiba, her research has shown that exclusionary school discipline, such as out-of-school suspension, is ineffective and counterproductive.

Perry noted schools tend to use a “bad apples” argument to justify punishments such as suspensions and expulsions. Removing a student who has violated school rules and policies, the argument goes, creates a less disruptive learning environment for everyone else.

“But we found that’s not really true,” Perry said. “Harsh punishments don’t improve behavior, they don’t prevent bullying, and in fact, they can cause negative academic outcomes even for non-suspended students, since they undermine school bonds and the legitimacy of school authority.”

Both Skiba and Perry added that negative impacts of school discipline are felt disproportionately by students of color.

“The data show that students of color are suspended at higher rates than white students,” Perry said. “If you’re a student of color, and you see peers who look like you getting punished for small offenses, that can really negatively affect how you feel about school as well as academic performance, graduation rates, and college attendance.”

While some speech, such as credible threats of violence, merit intervention, Perry noted, there is a lot of “gray area” for schools to overstep and overreach when it comes to off-campus speech.

“Especially with today’s technologies, a school can’t monitor and control all social media, so where do you draw the line?” she said. “Inevitably, there would be lots of subjectivity in making those calls, schools would have to isolate cases and make examples of kids. That’s bad for all kids, especially students of color who will be punished at disproportionate rates.”

When it comes to disciplinary responses, Skiba said, “schools should not be using a cannon when a reprimand would fit.”

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