Child Watch: Decriminalizing School Discipline

Marian Wright Edelman

By Marian Wright Edelman
NNPA Columnist

The purpose of public schools is to educate not exclude children, and to help identify and meet child needs, not make children serve adult convenience, self-interest, and systems. So huge reforms are required in school discipline policies and practices across our nation as school pushout has worsened in past decades with the criminalization of children at younger and younger ages aided and abetted by school expulsion and suspension policies which funnel children into the prison pipeline often crippling them for life.

Nationally, the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled during a school year increased about 40 percent from 1 in 13 in 1972–73 to 1 in 9 in 2009–10. Schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates have worse school climates, lower student academic achievement, and are often less safe. Racially discriminatory school discipline policies contribute to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis with a Black boy born in 2001 having a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a 1 in 6 chance of the same fate.

Some school districts are significantly reforming their discipline policies and, more fundamentally, how they view and treat children by moving away from harsh and exclusionary policies.

Of approximately 9,000 arrests and tickets issued to students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in the 2011-12 school year, 93 percent involved Black and Latino students. The district recently announced that it will stop issuing citations for most campus fights and many other minor infractions.

Positive change is also happening throughout Maryland. Nearly 1 in 5 students was being suspended in Baltimore’s 85,000 student school district annually until a new discipline code was implemented in 2008 emphasizing intervention and prevention and minimizing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions — especially for subjective offenses such as disrespect, insubordination, and classroom disruption. The first year after the new code’s adoption, out-of-school suspensions dropped 26 percent.

In January, the state released a new progressive discipline framework for all Maryland districts and more districts are seeing results. In Montgomery County, the state’s largest school system, out-of-school suspensions for high school students dropped 37 percent in one year (2012-13 to 2013-14) concurrently reducing racial disparities. A new code of conduct this school year emphasizes out-of-school suspensions as a last resort and provides steps to help students learn from their mistakes.

Over the past two years, with support from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Children’s Defense Fund has partnered with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) on child health enrollment and school discipline policies. We recently released a joint national survey of superintendents that showed that 92 percent of superintendents believe out-of-school suspensions have negative consequences; half the responding superintendents indicated that reducing the use of suspension is important or very important to their leadership agendas.

We know what works and what doesn’t work for children and need to place the highest priority on keeping students in school, safe, and learning. Engaged students and communities working with committed educators are showing that change is more than necessary — it’s possible.

As our nation’s children becomes majority non-White in 2019, greater sensitivity and awareness of the children being taught is essential and precautions must be taken so that “differentness” of race, gender, culture, and special needs or gifts are better understood and respected.

Our first Children’s Defense Fund report in 1974, “Children Out of School in America,” stated, “We found it was a national problem and that 2 million children were out of school including 750,000 between 7-13 years old. But the statistics did not tell us who those children were and why they were out of school. So CDF staff knocked on many thousands of doors in census tracts across the country to learn more. We found that the 7-13 year olds were largely children with physical, mental and emotional disabilities but school discipline policies were a major contributor to school exclusion.

If a child was not White, or was White but not middle class, did not speak English, was poor, needed special help with seeing, hearing, walking, reading, learning, adjusting, growing up, was pregnant or married at age 15, was not ‘smart enough’ or was ‘too smart,’ then, in too many places, school officials decided school was not the place for that child. In sum, out of school children shared a common characteristic of differentness by virtue of race, income, physical, mental or emotional ‘handicap,’ and age. They were for the most part, out of school not by choice but because they had been excluded. It is as if many school officials had decided that certain groups of children were beyond their responsibility and were expendable.

No child is expendable and every child deserves a right to learn and grow up to be the best they can be. We must increase the positive momentum that is building so once again schools educate children, help meet their individual needs and prepare them for the future.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

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