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How to discipline students without turning school into a prison

January 11, 2014

Now the civil rights arms of both the Departments of Education and Justice have jointly set guidelines for school discipline. These guidelines are meant to help schools avoid racially discriminatory disciplinary practices as outlined in the Civil Rights Data Collection, a survey of all public schools that’s been regularly conducted by the DoE since 1968. Among the discouraging findings the study outlines:

“African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Further, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.”

The study goes on to say that these findings aren’t explained by more frequent or serious infractions by minority students. The consequences for students are severe, leading to an array of negative outcomes from increased juvenile criminal justice involvement to drug use to lower academic achievement.

Some may feel, despite the voluminous data that black and Latino kids are too frequently targeted for harsh punishment, that disciplining black and Latino children less frequently and less severely can only lead to more chaotic and dangerous schools. In fact, there is considerable advocacy in the wake of Sandy Hook and other school tragedies to expand security practices typically found in inner city schools, including metal detectors and on-campus police, to predominantly white, middle-class, and affluent districts.  But the Department of Education outlines in a separate release called “Guiding Principles, A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” what it sees as the way forward for maintaining order and safety in schools without relying on correctional-setting security tactics.

Among the many alternatives to automatically suspending or expelling students or making rushed referrals to juvenile criminal justice, the DoE’s 37-page-long Guiding Principles mention restorative practices no less than nine times. This approach evolved from the restorative justice movement that seeks to make both victims and offenders whole and productive again through mediation and amends-making. Restorative practices in schools aim to prevent the spread of violence through non-punitive conflict resolution and peer support and to resolve problems that do occur peacefully through communication among victims, perpetrators and facilitators. Skeptics may think that this sounds like some hippy-dippy nonsense that’s doomed to fail when it hits the streets in a predominantly black inner-city school, but that’s not the case.
Read the full article.


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