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YJAM Series: Making our Schools Safer for All Kids

Credit to U.S. Dept. of Education via Flickr (License)

Excellent schools are the foundation of a prosperous society where all people can succeed. A public school system that functions effectively for every child has the power to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty and open worlds of opportunity for all kids.  Education can mean the difference between employability and incarceration; research has shown that educational failure significantly increases an individual’s likelihood of engaging in delinquent or criminal behavior.[1] Better schools mean safer communities.

This is why it is so important that our schools operate to pull in, rather than push out, those kids who may be struggling to succeed. Unfortunately, the data show that all too often, the reverse is happening.  We’ve engineered a system where kids have been repeatedly pushed out of schools and towards the courts by inflexible policies and procedures that rely too heavily on suspension, expulsion, and police intervention.

Let’s be clear; we’re not talking about truly dangerous behavior.  In a recent speech, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized that nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior—like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, tardiness, profanity, and dress code violations. Kids need peaceful classrooms where they feel safe in order to learn.  But kids also need to remain in school in order to reap the benefits of education and turn problematic behaviors around.  Pushing young people out of school for minor offenses backfires by leading to higher rates of dropout[2] and  increased trouble with the law. Moreover, a two year study of 17,000 students showed that at schools with high suspension rates, even the students who were not suspended or expelled performed worse on academic testing.[3]

It also cannot be ignored that discipline rates are disparately applied to children of color even for the same offenses. Minority children are routinely disciplined at higher rates, though no evidence suggests they commit crimes or engage in school-based misbehavior at higher rates than white youth.[4]  These numbers hold true even for the very young; a 2014 report[5] by the U.S. Department of Education showed that black children represented 18% of total preschool enrollment, but 48% of those children received one or more out-of-school suspensions. This unequal treatment feeds directly into the disproportionate impact our justice systems have on people and communities of color.

So what is the answer? Across the country, school districts are taking a hard look at the policies and procedures that have brought us to the status quo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research shows that relationships are what matter in improving student behavior and increasing safety.  Strong relationships of trust between teachers, parents, students, and principals are a better predictor of school safety than neighborhood crime or poverty.  Implementing restorative justice in schools reduces suspensions and serious behavioral incidents dramatically.[6]  Responding to student misbehavior through a responsive lens and seeking solutions to root causes of behavior builds trust between teacher and student, and contributes to an expectation that each child in the room deserves to be there.

We need our schools to function for all our kids.  Educators are powerful agents of change, and when we address the inequalities in our system, we will all reap the benefit of a safer, happier community.


[1] For instance, on average, state prisoners have achieved only a 10th grade education and about 70% have no high school diploma. http://www. mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/DAED_a_00019

[2] One longitudinal study showed that being suspended even once in 9th grade, controlling for other factors, is associated with a 20% increase in dropping out. See http://www.njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/OSF_Discipline-Disparities_Disparity_NewResearch_3.18.14.pdf

[4] See link in footnote 2 above, page 2.

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