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Deborah J. Vagins Headshot

Teach (and Treat) Our Children Well

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As a society, we adhere to the basic premise that, in the proper setting, children will learn what they are taught. And it follows that in learning to become positive and involved adults, children need to be encouraged and supported in their school environments.

We should all be alarmed, then, at some of the lessons we're teaching children in schools today. In this age of metal detectors, police in schools, and overly punitive zero-tolerance policies, our children are learning that any small infraction, even writing on a desk, can subject them to expulsion or possibly even a criminal record. Perhaps worst of all, today's schoolchildren are seeing their peers of color and peers with disabilities subjected to punishment at starkly disproportionate rates, perpetuating a lifetime of inequities.

Here are a few facts about punishment in schools today. American students are suspended and expelled at almost double the rate documented in 1974. Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have resulted from misbehavior as minor as breaking a pencil or throwing a basketball at another child. Research suggests that experiencing overly punitive discipline in school increases the likelihood of a student dropping out of school — a phenomenon known as "school pushout." Research also indicates that punitive zero tolerance policies have increased referrals to the juvenile justice system for infractions once handled in the schools. These increased referrals produce an increased number of young adults with records, which make it hard to secure everything from student loans to housing.

Moreover, there is a shockingly high level of discrimination in the application of these harsh punishments. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, African-American students are three times more likely to be suspended and 3.5 times more likely to be expelled than white students, and Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to be suspended and twice as likely to be expelled than white students. Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended and expelled as students without disabilities.

The ACLU is working at the state and federal levels to implement more effective, evidence-based disciplinary policies that will make our schools safer and keep kids in the classroom. Recently, the ACLU signed on to the Dignity in Schools Campaign's national resolution (PDF) for ending school pushout. This resolution, which is being released today, is intended to confront the factors that contribute to pushing youth out of schools. The resolution also provides recommendations to promote positive school climates and alternative approaches to discipline as essential elements for ending this crisis in our schools.

One such solution to the crisis lies in a federal bill pending in the House of Representatives. The ACLU, in conjunction with other civil rights and educational organizations, has been working to support H.R. 2597, the Positive Behavior for Safe and Effective Schools Act (PBSESA). The bill, introduced by Representative Phil Hare (D-Ill.) would give schools the tools they need to improve learning environments. The PBSESA would enable schools to use federal funds to implement evidence-based approaches, such as positive behavior supports (PBS) — a process proven to reduce discipline referrals, support improved academic outcomes, and improve school safety.

Over 9,000 U.S. schools are currently implementing PBS and seeing improved academics and reduced misbehavior as a result. For example, an elementary school in Illinois decreased its suspensions by 85 percent and improved its students' test scores after just two years of implementing PBS. This paradigm has successfully reduced misbehavior, suspensions and expulsions in schools around the country by communicating expectations of students, teaching better decision-making skills, and rewarding good behavior.

There is a valuable lesson here. Far too many students — especially students of color and children with disabilities — are being denied educational opportunities because they are pushed out of school by overly negative environments and harsh disciplinary measures that undermine their learning. Evidence shows that there is, and can be, another way to promote positive school climates. It's time to teach and treat our children well.