Using Frameworks to Understand the Context of Violent Incidents and Discipline

Disciplinary responses to violence have varying degrees of effectiveness and consequences depending on the characteristics of the incident. While no punishment can undo the harm caused by a violent incident, disciplinary actions ideally seek to prevent further violence and restore normalcy. Choosing the most appropriate response can be challenging, but analyzing the context of violent incidents can be helpful in the decision-making process. This context involves a general knowledge of violence and disciplinary actions across the state and an understanding of frameworks for asking practical questions that can be used to guide discipline decisions.

While no punishment can undo the harm caused by a violent incident, disciplinary actions ideally seek to prevent further violence and restore normalcy.

2012-2013 Disciplinary Incidents in Texas School

According to the Texas Education Agency1, a total of 1,041,551 disciplinary incidents were recorded in Texas schools during the 2012-2013 school year. Over 90% (940,405) of these incidents were recorded as "local code of conduct" violations. Because the nature and detail of these incidents is unknown, they have been removed from these analyses. Chart 1 displays the percentage of offenses that can be grouped as violent, substance, disorder, general (or unknown), property, and sexual offenses. Violent acts were the most common disciplined incident, representing 65% of disciplinary incidents, while the second most common offense type involved substances. Specifically, the most frequent violent and substance offenses were violations defined specifically as "fighting/mutual combat" and "controlled substance/drug."

Figure 1. Percent of offenses grouped by type.

Percent of offenses groups by type

The offenses in this graph make up 10% of all disciplinary incidents; the remaining 90% were classified as "local code of conduct" violations, and were discarded from this study.

Maps can visually depict how a phenomenon is spatially distributed. Figure 1 illustrates the number of disciplinary incidents per student enrollment (density) for all offense types during the 2012-2013 school year. Because districts with higher enrollment can be expected to report a higher number of incidents, the data are displayed as densities (number of incidents per enrollment) rather than as raw totals (number of incidents) making all school districts comparable on the map.

Figure 2. Map of Texas schools disciplinary incidents.

Map of Texas schools disciplinary incidents

Violence in Texas School Districts

Violence was the most commonly reported offense type in the 2012-2013 school year. For this reason, it is analyzed in further detail. Table 1 disaggregates violent incidents into specific offense categories. "Fighting/mutual combat" offenses are the most common form of reported violent conduct, representing almost 90% of incidents. Assaults (against district employees and against non-district employees) occurred in over 7% of incidents, making them the second most common violent offense category.

Table 1. Frequency and percentage of incidents by type.

Violent Offenses Count Percentage
Aggravated assault-district employee 18 0.02
Aggravated assault-non-district employee 192 0.29
Assault against district-employee 1,075 1.64
Assault against non-employee 3,887 5.94
Use of club as a weapon 8 0.01
Engages in deadly conduct 19 0.02
Fighting/mutual combat 58,401 89.36
Firearm violation 93 0.14
Illegal knife 170 0.26
Non-illegal knife 697 1.06
Prohibited weapon 324 0.49
Retaliation against district employee 37 0.05
School-related gang violence 134 0.20
Terroristic threat 298 0.45
TOTAL 65,353 100.00

Responses to violence can be both formal and informal in nature. Table 2 shows the formal disciplinary responses to all violent incidents. Suspension was by far the most common form of discipline for violent offenses (98%), where 64% of incidents resulted in out-of-school suspension and 34% of incidents resulted with in-school-suspension.

Table 2. Disciplinary responses to violent incidents.

Disciplinary Action for Violent Offenses Count Percent
Expulsion to a JJAEP* 529 0.8
Expulsion to off-campus DAEP** 102 0.2
Expulsion to on-campus DAEP** 39 0.1
Expulsion without education placement 124 0.2
In-school suspension 22,400 34.3
Mandatory action not taken (special education) 69 0.1
Mandatory action not taken 218 0.3
Out-of-school suspension 41,872 64.1
TOTAL 65,353 100.0

* Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program
** Disciplinary Alternative Education Program

Students Disciplined for More than One Violent Incident

Examining the frequency of students involved in more than one violent incident during the 2012-2013 school year and how they were punished helps to further understand the connection between violence and discipline actions. Table 3 shows the percentage of violent events that involved students who were punished more than once for violent incidents during the reporting period. Note that these students were involved in 51% of the most serious violent events (aggravated assaults and deadly conduct), 45% of assaults, and 42% of fighting incidents. Students repeatedly involved in violence were more likely to be involved in the most serious violent incidents in comparison to students involved in a single incident. However, only 25% of weapons incidents involved this group of students.

Table 3. Percent of incidents involving students disciplined for more than one violent incident.

Incident Type Total Number of Incidents Percent (%) of Incidents Involving Students Disciplined More Than Once for Violence
Serious violence* 527 51.8
Assault 4,962 45.0
Fighting/ Mutual Combat 58,401 42.8
Instruments of violence** 1,292 25.2
School-related gang violence 134 36.6
Retaliatory behavior*** 37 21.6
TOTAL 65,353 42.7

* Aggravated assault, deadly conduct, terrorism
** Firearm, knife, club, or prohibited weapon
*** Retaliation against a district employee (form of retaliation is unknown)

These data show two interesting distinctions: only a few students were responsible for actually participating in violence, yet the majority of students who were disciplined for weapons were not involved in more than one violent incident during the school year. Although reasons for this are unknown, it is helpful to understand that different groups of students were more likely to be involved in different violent offense categories.

Fighting and assault incidents were the most common violent events in the 2012-2013 year. Table 4 compares how Texas students were disciplined for these incidents depending on whether they were punished for more than one violent event during the school year (repeat) or punished for only one violent incident during the school year (non-repeat). The columns labeled "All Students" combine the two groups (repeat and non-repeat) to show how all students were disciplined for violent offenses. Disciplinary actions are also separated by type. Repeat students who were involved in a fighting incident were more often punished with in-school suspension (40.5%) than non-repeat students. Non-repeat students involved in assault incidents were given in-school suspension least often (16.2%) when compared to repeat students.

Table 4. Discipline responses for fighting and assault incidents*.

Disciplinary Action Fighting/Mutual Combat Assault
Repeat Non-repeat All Students Repeat Non-repeat All Students
In-school suspension 40.5 29.8 34.4 32.4 16.2 23.5
Out-of-school suspension 59.5 70.2 65.6 54.6 82.3 69.9
Other formal discipline 0.0 0.0 0.0 13.0 1.5 6.6
TOTAL 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

*Cells represent the percent of incidents within each student group (repeat, non-repeat, and all) that were given a certain disciplinary action (in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and other). Reading across the rows of the table compares the student groups in terms of frequency for that disciplinary action.

A stark difference in discipline was found for assault incidents, where non-repeat students were given out-of-school suspension in 82.3% of cases and repeat students were given the same treatment in only 54.6% of cases. A similar, yet less obvious, situation appears in fighting/mutual combat incidents. Non-repeat students were more commonly given harsher treatment (out-of-school suspension) than repeat students. It is unclear which incident and corresponding disciplinary action occurred first for repeat students, and school administrators would not have known if the student would be involved in another violent incident in the same year. Future analysis may provide further explanation of how disciplinary actions affect subsequent behavior of students.

A Hypothetical Exercise: Interpreting the Context of Disciplinary Action

Using the present data as an example, consider the following hypothetical interpretation of responses to violent incidents. While the true reason is unknown, one could speculate that Texas educators were working under assumptions that students are either: 1) deterred from future offending with a particular type of discipline or; 2) given a chance to properly re-socialize by a particular type of discipline.

The first argument suggests a deterrent effect of discipline by increasing harshness of punishment. For students likely to be involved in only one violent incident, being sent home to serve out-of-school suspension would be much more shameful and prohibit them from seeing friends at school. By contrast, students likely to be involved in more than one violent incident may view out-of-school suspension as a chance to get out of school for a few days and spend time with peers who are also not at school. Being sent home is therefore desirable, not shameful. In-school suspension may be perceived harsher for this group, because they are kept in school where they do not want to be.

The second possible reason for the difference in punishment suggests that school administrators sought to re-socialize students in the most appropriate way. For individuals unlikely to be involved in violence again, it may be helpful to face parents during an out-of-school suspension and not associate with deviant peers at school (during an in-school suspension). For students likely to be involved in more violence, home life may not be conducive to normative socialization. These individuals may end up spending time with delinquent peers during out-of-school suspension and exacerbate the situation. An in-school suspension may give administration a chance to work more closely with these students to encourage appropriate behavior.

Education is more than teaching children concepts and skills in subjects like English and math. Educators are also tasked with instilling conventional norms and values.

The above interpretation is only speculative and this hypothetical exercise is designed to encourage readers to think about punishment in terms of contextual circumstances and potential consequences of different disciplinary actions.

Moving Forward

Education is more than teaching children concepts and skills in subjects like English, mathematics, and social studies. Educators are also tasked with instilling conventional norms and values. A violent incident creates a challenging situation requiring a balance of response perspectives. There is no one-size-fits-all framework, but there are important questions to consider. Thus, teachers and administrators should seek to answer these contextual questions and administer their disciplinary response with this information in mind. Listed in Table 5 are questions grounded in theoretical perspectives that educators can use to guide disciplinary actions.

Table 5. Questions to consider in discipline.

Perspective Derived Questions
Removing students from the school will prevent further violence from that individual.
  • Must the student be prevented from further contact with the victim(s) or the school at large? If so, for how long?
Reacting to violence negatively affects an individual's self-concept, inter-personal relationships, and structural opportunities2.
  • Will the punishment stigmatize the individual such that they begin to see themselves as a trouble-maker?
  • What are the social consequences of labeling the student as a deviant? How will others view the student?
Punishment should be swift, certain, and proportionately severe to deter students from violent behavior4.
  • What is the least-harsh punishment that is proportionate to the incident?
  • Does the disciplinary action serve as an example to others?
  • Will the student (and others) see discipline as an immediate and necessary consequence of violent behavior?
Deterrence only works if individuals are not stigmatized. Actions should be punished, not individuals5.
  • How can the wrongfulness of the action be communicated without stigmatizing the individual?
Deviant behaviors and attitudes are learned through interaction with peers and reinforced by consequences. Peer-friendship groups and the family are most important in this learning process6.
  • For this particular student, what is the best environment to encourage appropriate behavior?
  • Who can effectively communicate positive social norms and values to this student? How can this be done?
Crime violates people and interpersonal relationships. These violations create obligations, and these "wrongs" must be "put right." Victims, offenders, and the community should all be involved in this process7.
  • Does the student understand the harm caused by their actions?
  • Does the student know who was affected by their actions?
  • Is the student taking steps to repair the harm caused?
  • Are victims involved in the process of repairing the harm, if they wish?

References

1 Texas Education Agency. (2014) PEIMS discipline data 2012-2013 [Data file and codebook].

2 Liska, A.E., & Messner, S.F. (1999) Perspectives on crime and deviance. Third edition. Prentice Hall.

3 Clarke, R.V., & Cornish, D.B. (1985) Modeling offenders' decisions: A framework for research and policy. Crime and Justice, 6.

4 Beccaria, C. (1764) On crimes and punishments. Chapter in: Classics of Criminology. Fourth edition. Eds. Jacoby, J.E., Severance, T.A., & Bruce, A.S. (2011). Waveland Press.

5 Braithwaite, J. (1989) Crime, Shame, and Reintegration. Cambridge University Press.

6 Akers, R.L., Krohn, M.D., Lanza-Kaduce, L., & Radosevich, M. (1979) Social learning and deviant behavior: A specific test of a general theory. American Sociological Review, 44:4.

7 Zehr, H. (2002) The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Good Books.