We Need to Keep Kids in School
School discipline isn’t something administrators do to kids; instead, it’s a generally accepted code of conduct, a school culture if you will. A school discipline plan is a lot more than just a list of “if - thens” – if you do this, then you get that. If you swear at a teacher, then you are suspended for three days. If you hit another student, then you are expelled. School discipline needs to be a general plan to conduct daily business, not a way to get rid of kids who break the rules.
Despite my many years of experience in public schools, I must confess that I’m at a loss to explain why some educators still embrace a “zero tolerance” approach to discipline – as if all infractions are equal. We’ve seen this foolishness over the years when one kid was suspended for bringing a spork to school (possible weapon) or when another kid was suspended for wearing a hat with a tiny plastic soldier carrying a gun pinned to it. Likewise, a kid with a prescription allergy medication in her purse is treated the same way as a kid with marijuana. School people nearly always look ridiculous when they stick to the letter of the law and enforce zero tolerance plans.
So you have to wonder what’s up with Texas, where 60% of students were suspended at least once or expelled between seventh and twelfth grade according to a recently released study by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. Only 3% of these disciplinary actions were required by state law in response to specified misconduct; the rest occurred at the discretion of local administrators. Of interest here is that schools with similar demographics varied greatly in how frequently kids were removed from school, leaving us to wonder about the attitudes of the adults in charge.
Suspensions and expulsions were meted out far more frequently to African-Americans, Hispanics, and students with special needs, prompting Attorney General Eric Holder to call the report a “wake-up call.” No kidding. And Texas isn’t alone in removing kids from school as a cure for disruption; currently Maryland and Virginia are reviewing their schools’ disciplinary choices. And a recent study also found that New York students with disabilities, particularly those with emotional disturbance, were particularly vulnerable to being removed from school.
The United States currently has the highest rate of incarceration for its population, and the number of juveniles in jail has increased over the last decade. In our country more black men ages 18-24 are in prison than in college. And studies show that suspension and expulsion facilitates the “school-to-prison pipeline”. And yet we persist in treating kids in ways we know have been shown to be ineffective – and even harmful.
Not long ago I served on a grand jury. One youngster – maybe about 15 – admitted that he carried a gun in a robbery “in one of those bags that kids use for gym.” Other kids, he meant. Not him. He hadn’t been in school for a year or so. Where do school administrators think kids go when they’re suspended or expelled? What do they do? Not all of them hold up stores, of course, but neither do they get jobs and work their way up to management. Suspending and expelling kids kicks the can down the road. We can do better than this.