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Health in School

Health Equity, School Discipline Reform and Restorative Justice

July 31, 2019


The recently released Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics conference supplement issue features articles authored by presenters at the 2018 Public Health Law Conference: Health Justice: Empowering Public Health and Advancing Health Equity in Phoenix, AZ. Thalia González, senior scholar at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C ; Alexis Etow, senior attorney at ChangeLab Solutions and; Cesar De La Vega, policy analyst at ChangeLab Solutions, co-authored the article, “Health Equity, School Discipline Reform and Restorative Justice.” In the following Q&A, the authors discuss the article and how it addresses a critical public health issue.

Q: Why is this topic so critical right now?

Over the last twenty years we have witnessed significant civil rights victories in the movement for school discipline reform. However, despite a strong evidence base against exclusionary school discipline (ESD) practices such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, we face pushback on these gains with the burgeoning “hardening schools” movement. While not grounded in science or educational best practices, this movement has the potential to undo many of the protections advocates have fought zealously to secure. This places all students—but in particular students of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities, who are disproportionately subjected to harsh discipline practices—at risk for lower levels of educational attainment and the opportunity to reach their full health potential. As research advances our understanding of the connections between adversity, trauma, ESD, health, and educational outcomes, we have an opportunity to reshape advocacy and policy approaches to school discipline reform centered on integrated and preventative interventions that promote health justice for all.  Simply put, the continued use of ESD is not just a civil rights issue, but as importantly it is a public health crisis with significant implications for individual and community health.

Q: How does your article address this issue and its challenges?

Our article fills a gap in the literature by introducing the analytical framework for understanding school discipline as a public health issue. We provide readers with key linkages between ESD and health outcomes. We hope readers can see the connections not only between ESD and lower levels of educational attainment for children in the short-term, but how ESD can impact one’s health over the course of their life. Further, we highlight how ESD undermines a critical protective factor—school connectedness—that can shield children from developing new or exacerbating contemporary toxic stress responses to repeated or prolonged adversity outside schools. While there is no single “magic bullet” in education policy, we identify evidence-based design principles to consider when developing multi-tiered systems of support. Recognizing that theoretical models are not always practical for policymakers and educators, we provide an example of applicability to school-based restorative justice (RJ) practice. The evidence base for school-based RJ suggests that such practices can strengthen the resilience of youth and align with the broader framework of health justice.

Q: How do current policy solutions address this issue?

Currently many of the policy solutions to the most pressing issues in education are developed through a civil rights paradigm that is often more reactive than proactive. Additionally, they are typically developed in advocacy and research silos that do not lend themselves well to collaboration and the production of cross-sectoral best practices. Furthermore, in states that have sought to address school discipline legislatively (e.g., banning zero tolerance school discipline policies, incorporating restorative justice and social and emotional learning), educators face the difficult task of implementation without adequate funding or infrastructure. To help remedy this, we must move towards a more integrated approach that advances interdisciplinary collaboration. When we bring a health justice lens to the issue of ESD, it invites public health professionals, health care providers, and other health advocates to join civil rights, disability rights, education, and racial justice advocates in the movement to ensure that all children have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to note? 

We want readers to know that whether the topic is the achievement gap, school discipline reform, truancy, social and emotional learning, or any other education issue—there are long-term health implications for affected students. Further, when we focus on eliminating disparities, closing opportunity gaps, and moving upstream to adopt preventative measures, we are addressing issues of health justice. Given the hardening schools movement, advances in science, and changing policy landscape, the time is now to understand school discipline reform and education advocacy more broadly. As individuals and communities committed to education equity and access, we have a responsibility to understand the growing evidence base that connects adversity, trauma, ESD, health, and learning. We must then apply this knowledge to the development of laws, policies, and practices that are supportive rather than harmful, preventative rather than responsive, and equity-driven rather than conduits for widening disparities.

This guest post was prepared by Thalia González, JD, senior scholar at Georgetown University Law Center, Alexis Etow, JD, senior attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, and Cesar De La Vega, JD, policy analyst at ChangeLab Solutions.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.