Kicking kids out of school should be last resort


January 9, 2014 6:28PM

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Updated: February 11, 2014 6:23AM

Zero tolerance in schools, coupled with widespread suspensions and expulsions, works exceptionally well on paper.

But in the real world?

That’s a very different story.

Tossing students out of school for minor misbehavior does not make schools safer and can seriously damage academic outcomes for affected students and entire schools, research complied by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows. That’s particularly true in urban districts, where these policies disproportionately affect black students. In Chicago, for example, a black student is five times more likely to be suspended than a white student, according to 2011-2012 U.S. Department of Education data released this week.

On Wednesday the latest — and one of the most important — voices in education joined the chorus of educators calling for a more constructive set of discipline strategies.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, released a set of school discipline guidelines that call for removing students from the classroom “only as a last resort” and only for serious infractions.

The guidelines urge school districts to adopt policies that make schools safer by working on school climate — creating environments that teach and reward good behavior, where adults intervene before misconduct escalates. This doesn’t preclude tough punishments. The guidelines call for clear and consistent expectations and consequences, as they should.

Any good principal will tell you she needs suspensions as a last resort. Preferably, in the view of many experts, the in-school kind.

Chicago is one of many school districts across the nation that has been grappling with this issue in recent years. For years, CPS’ student discipline code focused largely on punishment. Suspensions were long the default punishment for serious offenses and for repeat offenders, costing students 306,731 days in the 2010-11 school year, according to Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a group that pushed for limits on suspensions and school-based arrests and a revised CPS discipline code.

After much debate, the Chicago Board of Education adopted a new discipline code for this school year. The revised code is meant to move away from strict punishment and toward a greater focus on changing student behavior, not just punishing it. The new code limits the opportunities for a principals to suspend, encourages more in-school suspensions, reduces the maximum number of suspension days and emphasizes corrective approaches, such as peace circles and social skills development, as the first response to misdeeds.

But to make this work — to keep order in schools in desperate need of it — the right school climate is essential. This requires making a whole school effort to teach students the skills they need to avoid getting in trouble — how to walk the hallways, how to take a breath instead of swinging first — followed by more intensive social supports for kids who need it.

CPS has long been committed to supporting this work, and it’s in place in a growing number of schools, but it’s far from universal. For example, we checked in with Shawn Brown, the campaign director for VOYCE, and he sees no comprehensive effort in most of the 10 high schools where he works. It’s not lack of interest, he says, it’s a lack of resources.

Even in tight budget times, it’s hard to think of a better investment.

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