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Breaking the School-To-Prison Pipeline by Looking at Suspension as a Last Resort

A growing number of schools around the country are beginning to abandon the “zero tolerance” policies that typically result in school suspensions. The goal is to explore every possible alternative before pushing a student out of the classroom as a form of punishment. It’s all part of an effort to keep more kids in the classroom and avoid the school-to prison pipeline that happens when kids are kicked out of school and fall into the criminal justice system.

Like many states around the country, Michigan public schools adhered to the zero tolerance policy that required students be permanently kicked out of school if they brought a weapon to school, committed a violent sexual act, physically assaulted school staff, or committed arson. Students would be handed an out-of-school suspension term for fighting and verbal assaults.

Both Michigan and Virginia though, have passed new laws recently that require schools to make every effort possible before expelling or suspending students for offenses. Both lawmakers and educators are hoping to keep more students in school, rather than kick them out and leave the bad behavior unchecked.

Virginia Senator, Jennifer McClellan, pushed for the change after learning of the high volumes of boys of color and children with learning disabilities who were being suspended.

“You’re not addressing the underlying cause of the behavior,and you’re putting students out of school in many cases with no instruction at all as long as 364 days,” McClellan told WVTF. “When they come back, they’re far behind their peers. Some of them may be sitting at home alone, and there are lots of studies that show that’s when kids start to get in trouble.”

A nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, estimates that students of color are 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. Black students make up 46 percent of students who are suspended more than once, despite only accounting for around 18 percent of the student population. And children with learning disabilities don’t fare much better. While only around 8.6 percent of school children have a medically identified learning disability, those who do make up 32 percent of kids who are eventually expelled and placed in a juvenile detention center.

So far, there are reported successes in school districts that have begun to reevaluate when they hand out suspensions. When Tuscaloosa, Alabama city schools had a spike in suspensions and expulsions in the 2015-2016 school year, board of education members began looking for a solution. The school system has been experimenting with more in-school and alternative “restorative justice” programs to reach more students with behavioral issues. This includes a variety of arts and extracurricular activities designed to help identify, predict, and prevent behavioral problems.

“We’ve tried to dig deeper in finding out why children are acting out,” Tuscaloosa City Schools Director of Student Services, Janet Sherrod said. The 2016-2017 school year saw a 35 percent decline in reported suspension incidents from the previous school year. School expulsions fell from 17 to four.

As our own Keith Lambert explored, punishing a student with suspension can be a conflicting subject for teachers. The behavioral issue often goes unresolved with out-of-school suspension and the student returns to school lagging behind with the same problem, likely to only have flare up again down the road. On the flipside, the real world has ramifications where conflicts are often dealt with harsh consequences.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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