Many schoolchildren in America are on summer break right now, but here’s a pop quiz about discipline policies in our nation’s schools that’s just for grownups:
• Would you suspend a student from school for four months for sharpening his pencil without permission and giving the teacher a “threatening” look when asked to sit down?
• Would you expel a student from school for the rest of a school year for poking another student with a ballpoint pen during an exam?
• Would you expel a student from school permanently because her possession of an antibiotic violated your school’s zero-tolerance drug policy?
• Would you call the police, handcuff, and then expel a student who started a snowball fight on school grounds?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions because they sounded too unfair to be the result of an actual policy, give yourself a failing grade. All four are real examples of zero tolerance school discipline policies in Massachusetts — and there are thousands of stories like these throughout that state and across the country.
Major negative effect
New research analyzing the data from the 2009 – 2010 school year in Massachusetts found nearly 60,000 school expulsions and suspensions. Just more than half of them were for “unassigned offenses” – nonviolent, noncriminal offenses that can include behavioral issues such as swearing, talking back to a teacher, and truanc.
Of the approximately 30,000 “unassigned offenses,” two-thirds received out of school suspension, resulting in 57,000 lost days of school. What’s more, because Massachusetts schools aren’t currently required to report “unassigned offenses” resulting in exclusions of 10 days or less for regular education students, the estimated actual number of disciplinary exclusions is likely at least two to three times the 60,000 reported.
Jen Vorse Wilka, a student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, found these startling statistics when she studied zero tolerance discipline policies in Massachusetts as part of her master’s degree program.
Cradle to prison
Her final report, “Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Analyzing Zero Tolerance School Discipline Policies and Identifying Strategic Opportunities for Intervention,” received an award from the school’s faculty and sheds new light on the need to address these harmful policies.
This report bolsters the work Massachusetts community leaders and advocates are already doing to take action against harsh one-size-fits-all policies and call for more balanced approaches.
Right now, Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC) and the Education Law Task Force are championing two pieces of legislation to reduce school exclusion for disciplinary reasons and, by doing so, reduce school dropouts; improve access to education among students excluded from school; and require the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to review and respond to school exclusion data.
The Children’s Defense Fund has endorsed both bills. MAC also is championing a new bill to ensure schools have the supports and tools they need to become safe, supportive learning environments that result in far fewer school exclusions. If successful, these pieces of legislation could become a model for effectively curbing these policies’ negative impact.
Students vs. prisoners
All of this work has special implications in Massachusetts because that state spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil — a greater disparity than in any other state.
The most recent data show that in 2007 Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. That’s a pretty dumb investment policy. Sound fiscal policy means investing in early childhood development and education especially in these economic hard times. Intervening early not only saves lives and futures, it saves money.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.