February is Black History Month, an opportune time to share some important information, insights, and recommendations that WJCS Board member Karen Blumenthal presented about the “school-to-prison pipeline” at a recent event sponsored by the WJCS Undoing Racism Alliance.
Education has traditionally been considered a route to success. However, the skyrocketing number of school suspensions, even among very young students and especially among children of color, has led to an increasing number of students falling behind academically, repeating a grade, dropping out, and becoming tangled in the juvenile or adult justice system. More stringent discipline policies were developed at public schools in recent years as a result of school violence and shootings. But 95% of suspended students are suspended even though their behavior was not violent, said Blumenthal. The majority of offenses relate to defiance, disrespect, insubordination, clothing, cellphone use, and talking back. For these behaviors, students of color were and are significantly overrepresented in punitive discipline. Data shows that students who have been suspended at least once, more than one in seven had subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. Despite only comprising 1/3 of the U.S. juvenile population, students of color represent over 2/3 of all juveniles confined in detention and correctional facilities.
The school suspension statistics in Westchester County are striking.
- More than 5,000 Westchester students are suspended each year.
- On average, 9% of the students who are suspended each year are in elementary school.
- 95% of students suspended are suspended even though their behavior was not violent.
- Students at Westchester schools in which the students are predominantly of color are 15 times more likely to be suspended than students at Westchester schools in which the students are predominantly white.
Among the necessary steps that schools need to take in order to improve the school environment and develop alternative responses to disciplinary problems include forging effective school-parent partnerships with all families, diversifying school personnel, exploring model programs and promising initiatives, reducing school suspensions and disproportionality for students of color, males, and students with disabilities, promoting the use of alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, and creating a strong school-community team overseeing these efforts.
As a community, we need to raise awareness about the harmful effects of harsh discipline practices and establish a work group of key stakeholders within the district and from the community dedicated to creating change. Among the steps that need to be taken are:
- Develop a statement of principles regarding effective school discipline.
- Collect and analyze suspension and other disciplinary data.
- Review and modify a district’s code of conduct to promote solutions and reduce suspensions.
- Determine specific goals related to reducing out of school suspensions and disproportionality.
- Create prevention programs and measures that are trauma-informed and emphasize social emotional learning.
- Initiate alternative ways of handling most infractions rather than depending on suspensions. These could include performing school and/or community services, behavioral contracts and monitoring, mentoring, and referrals to community resources.