School Discipline Is a Community Issue: Why People Whose Kids Are Grown or Who Don’t Have Kids Should Care About What’s Happening in Our Schools
Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”
Children “should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.” Convention on the Rights of the Child, Preamble
Public schools rely too heavily on exclusion – suspension and expulsion – as their primary discipline practice. When a child or young person misbehaves or breaks a rule, “discipline” in most schools means removal of the child from school, sometimes for one day, sometimes for a year or more. In almost every situation in which a child is removed from school, this is an illogical, counterproductive tactic. In some situations, it is dangerous.
Children who want to avoid schoolwork, a particular teacher, a classmate, or school in general learn quickly what to do to achieve being removed from the setting they seek to avoid. Children who have been repeatedly removed from school fall further behind the more they are removed from their classrooms. Children who are behind have more and more trouble catching up the more frequently they are gone. Children who are behind and not engaged in the classroom do not learn. Children who are not learning get bored and act up. And so on.
Children who live in high-poverty, high-crime areas are susceptible to becoming both victims and perpetrators of crime when left outside of adult supervision all day while they are not in school. Many, many parents in low-income families work multiple jobs to try to get by, lack access to child care, and cannot stay home and supervise their children when they are suspended from school.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a history of prior suspensions causes young people to drop out of school. And that far too many young people who are pushed out of school end up in our juvenile and criminal justice systems.
This affects all of us. Crime committed by and against young people affects our communities, both on a large and small scale. The young people who tag my garage and break into my neighbors’ homes in my central city neighborhood have almost certainly been failed by the public school system. And it doesn’t just affect those of us who live in urban areas, where concentrated poverty and crime, and failing schools, are endemic. Kids are pushed out of school in suburban and rural schools, too. Data shows that kids who are repeatedly suspended from suburban and rural schools are at higher risk of dropping out, too. And people who live in suburban and rural communities pay the price when kids from their own small communities, as well as the urban communities in their state, are not in school.
Because they’ve been failed by their schools, young people who are not in school are more likely to become unemployed adults. They are more likely to become recipients of public benefits like food stamps and TANF. Young people who are not in school do not disappear. They simply lose access to almost every legitimate means of earning a living and supporting themselves and their families. In short, schools’ failure to provide students a high quality education and treat them with dignity fails not just them: it fails every person who lives and works in their community, their state, their nation.
Every person who lives in any community, therefore, has a personal interest in ensuring that every young person in that community is in school. Removing children from school to discipline them for wrongdoing treats them as disposable, as a nuisance that we have neither the patience nor the fortitude to address. Instead, all community members must take responsibility for ensuring that their schools teach children appropriate behavior, use discipline wisely, and exclude children from school rarely.
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