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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Professor Anyon Co-Authors Report Aimed at Reducing School Suspensions, Racial Disparities

August 22, 2016

As Denver Public Schools reopen this fall, educators, social workers and school leaders have access to concrete and specific strategies that have been shown to lower suspension rates, reduce racial discipline gaps and improve student behavior. The strategies are contained in a report released this month by the DPS Office of Social-Emotional Learning (OSEL) and researchers and students at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver (GSSW). Social work professor Yoli Anyon co-authored the report, Spotlight on Success: Changing the Culture of Discipline in Denver Public Schools

GSSW and OSEL forged their researcher-practitioner partnership in 2012 to improve school discipline outcomes throughout the district and reduce racial disparities in exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions. Their study used discipline data, interviews and focus groups to identify characteristics of DPS schools that met the district's discipline goals of a 0-3 percent suspension rate for their student population overall and for Black students in particular during the 2014-2015 school year.

Statistical analyses comparing schools that met the district's discipline goals with those that did not revealed that low-suspending schools were less racially and economically segregated, had fewer serious discipline incidents and made less frequent use of in- and out-of-school suspension. Low-suspending schools also made greater use of restorative practices in response to discipline incidents – involving students and adults in identifying the harm caused by a discipline infraction, acknowledging responsibility and jointly problem-solving to develop strategies for repairing harm.

Most research study participants said achieving low suspension rates and academic success requires that schools implement intentional systems for cultivating positive behavior and school culture. Other factors key to reducing suspensions include building positive relationships with students and families, recognizing and rewarding good behavior, and supporting students' social and emotional development.

The report recommends that schools hire people who demonstrate alignment with their school's culture, core values and discipline philosophies, provide sustained professional learning for staff, hold staff accountable to school-wide expectations, and seek funds for school-based student services that are provided by professionals from a variety of disciplines.

At the district level, the report encourages administrators to set high expectations, provide a high degree of support and establish high accountability conditions that encourage more schools to implement the strategies outlined in the report.