Creating Better Learning Conditions Key to Keeping Kids in School

During a national briefing call on June 3, Texas Sen. John Whitmire noted that, in his state, 84% of African American boys had received one or more suspensions in their educational career.  This was a startling wake-up call for policymakers and is now a priority as they work to create welcoming school cultures and effective learning conditions to keep students in the classroom.

"We have a huge responsibility across this country to keep kids in school.  We're not talking about guns, drugs or violations of the penal code, we're talking about school discipline," said Whitmire, chairman of the Texas criminal justice committee.  Whitmire also serves as chairman of CSG's Justice Center project on school discipline which recently released a report titled "The School Discipline Consensus Report:  Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System."  Whitmire went on to say, "You can't solve a problem until you identify it.  Suspension and expulsion should be the last options.  Out of school suspension very seldom accomplishes anyting.  He or she will get behind in their school work and there's no supervision."

Authors of the report state that millions of students are removed from local school district classrooms each year and most are in middle or high school.  Their findings show that the majority of infractions are minor such as dress code violations and a disproportionate amount of suspensions are dealt to students of color, students with disabilities and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).  In the report, it's noted that:

  • Black, Hispanic and American Indian students are suspended at much higher rates than their white peers - sometimes at double the rate;
  • Twenty percent of secondary school students with disabilities were suspended in a single school year, compared to fewer then ten percent of their peers without disabilities; and
  • LGBT youth are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment than their heterosexual counterparts.

During the call, Sen. Whitmire shared a story from Duncanville, Texas where 170 students were suspended in one day for dress code violations.  Instead of finding alternative options the school suspended the students which put them on the streets and in the community with little or no suspervision by adults.  Whitmire said, "This is nonsense, we have to quit criminalizing school discipline."

Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shared teachers' passion for this issue.  She said that educators want to keep students in school but no one can ignore this level of suspension data.  She suggested four strategies to create and sustain a safe, welcoming environment including:

  1. Ongoing professional development - "real classroom management" is the hardest thing to learn and the hardest thing to do on an ongoing basis;
  2. Investment in social, emotional, and health services - this is part of law enforcement and juvenile justice services and we must invest in these needs;
  3. Options and alternatives for schools - peer mediation is a strategy for students to arrive at a solution, effective restorative justice programs are also good opportunities; and
  4. School social workers, counselors and nurses must be on staff in a school - all of these come together to provide wraparound services.

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, CSG 2014 Chairman, also participated on the briefing call.  "For the next two years, CSG is undertaking a workforce development and education initiative called State Pathways to Prosperity with many issues involved.  The welfare of our youth is one of the most imprtant among them.  If young people get derailed and not prooperly attended to they won't ge the education they need to become productive citizens."

CSG's Justice Center staff noted that the report is not a set of national standards but ideas for states to draw upon and learn from each other.  How each school and state approach the options provided in the report depends on that jurisdiction.  

Sen. Norris shared that, in his state of Tennessee, seven new school districts were just created and one of their questions was around school safety.  He noted, " One size does not fit all.  You can go into the 400 pages (of the report) and find what is relevant to your school or state.  We encourage healthy debate and discussion."