“Elesha was walking down the hallway with her friends when a few of them started kidding around and pushing each other.
One girl hit a boy with a binder. He responded by playfully shoving her back, causing her to lose her balance and fall over.
The girl got up and all of the students headed to class.
Elesha thought nothing more about what happened — until the last period of the day when she was called to the office.
It turned out her friend had injured her finger, and since Elesha was with the group when it happened, administrators said she was partially responsible.
Her punishment: A 45-day suspension.
“We were just playing around,” she said. “But they said it was my fault.”
— Anecdote from “Stolen Time: New York State’s Suspension Crisis,” The New York
Many of us as kids grew up with this policy: If you did something really bad in school, you got suspended.
For the institution of public education, it was the equivalent of our justice system sending criminals off to prison — separate the bad apples from your good and decent society.
And over time, as suspensions became ingrained in school disciplinary policy, they began to have the same unintended, negative effects.
According to a 277-page report issued last week by the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) about a problem the lawyers organization calls the “School to Prison Pipeline,” students who are suspended from school face lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, higher dropout rates and higher contact with the justice system.
In addition to suspensions, law enforcement is often brought in to address serious disciplinary matters, introducing kids to the criminal justice system at an early age.
The “prison pipeline” part of the equation comes from statistics showing that students with a first arrest and court appearance are four times more likely to drop out of school. Even when treated as juveniles, the report stated, suspended and arrested students are seven times more likely to have a criminal record as an adult.
In addition, suspension tends to target certain racial groups.
According to the report, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled.
School districts have in the past several years begun to take notice of the impact and have begun to adapt their disciplinary policies away from suspensions and toward approaches that help get kids back on the academic and behavioral track.
Last year, for instance, the Schenectady school district expanded its “diversion” program to allow students under suspension to forgo part of their suspensions by taking diagnostic tests and going to therapy to improve their behavior.
The result was a large across-the-board decline in the number of suspensions and an increase in the number of kids opting for diversion.
The NYSBA report —prepared by representatives from law enforcement, teachers and administrators, youth organizations, legal-aid groups and other legal experts — contains a number of recommended alternatives to suspension.
They include Student Court, Youth Court, Peer Court and other student-based disciplinary programs; constructive punishment such as writing letters of apology, doing community service and staying after school for extra help; restorative conferencing, which involves helping students reconcile in a positive manner with their families and others whom their behavior may have affected; “circles,” which bring together all involved to help restore balance to the relationship; and accountability boards, where adults hold hearings and make recommendations for action.
These are some of the tools that school districts can employ to help students, rather than punish them, that have proven effective in varying degrees in interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.
But the onus for resolving the problem doesn’t just fall on individual schools, local law enforcement and youth organizations.
The report says the state Education Department and the Legislature have to play a role in interrupting the entire suspension culture.
For one, the bar association recommends a change in state Education Law to specifically permit and endorse restorative justice practices as alternatives to suspensions.
If the language in Education Law is codified, even if not mandated, officials believe more schools will be likely to try and adapt alternative approaches to the problem of student misconduct.
The group also recommends school districts embed restorative practices in their individual codes of conduct.
And for lawmakers and the governor, it recommends including funding for such programs in the state budget to encourage and support school districts in their efforts.
The causes of inappropriate behavior in children are often complex, and that’s reflective of the complexity of the solutions required.
But studies have shown that simply kicking a student out of school, even for a short time, without offering help and guidance to get them back on a positive path, does more harm than good.
School districts, the Education Department and lawmakers need to understand the harm these policies have on the individual students, families and society, particularly on minorities. And they need to understand the importance of their respective roles in supporting changes to this old-style, ineffective, harmful disciplinary approach.
To read the NYSBA report, visit http://www.nysba.org/pipelinefinalreport/.
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