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Rethinking School Discipline for Better Opportunities

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Zero tolerance school discipline policies leave young men of color most vulnerable -- but it doesn't have to be that way.

All young people should have the opportunity to succeed. It's a fundamentally American argument, and also the core value of the initiative that President Obama launched this week to help expand opportunities for boys and young men of color.

The launch of this effort is a moment to make significant progress on an issue that makes boys and young men of color particularly vulnerable in our country: zero tolerance school discipline policies.

Though these policies aimed to improve student behavior and safety by cracking down on low-level offenses, in practice they have led to skyrocketing rates of suspension, expulsion and arrests in schools. Young men of color have borne the brunt of these extreme reactions to typical student behavior and have subsequently been disproportionately funneled out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

For example, studies show that African-American students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students during the 2009-10 school year, largely for nonviolent offenses including disruptive or disrespectful behavior, tardiness, profanity and dress code violations -- behavior that occurs on a daily basis in most schools.

But the suspensions are only the beginning of the problem, and can lead to long term problems not only for these young men, but also for their communities. Recent research found that even one suspension in the 9th grade doubles the risk of becoming a high school dropout, and a statewide study in Texas revealed that suspensions or expulsion tripled the likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system.

Young people have been speaking out against this broken system for decades. Student advocates in groups like Padres & Jovenes Unidos in Denver, Youth United for Change in Philadelphia, VOYCE in Chicago and the Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City have held rallies to protest the destructive impact of zero tolerance policies on their lives and the well-being of their communities, and advocate for investments in counseling, early academic intervention, extracurricular activities and mental health services.

We all should stand with these young people and do what we can to keep every single child in the classroom rather than kicking them out of school with nothing to do, which only makes it more likely they will get into further trouble.

The good news is that there are solutions -- and when we use them, more young people graduate.

Already, a number of school districts, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Denver, have taken measures, such as Restorative Practices among others, to shift their focus from punishment to prevention in order to better align school discipline and safety strategies with their educational achievement goals. In Oakland, suspensions were reduced for African American males by 33 percent and for Latino males by 25 percent as a result of a partnership linking the academic, health and family engagement services offered by full-service community schools like Elev8 (an initiative to strengthen community schools by providing, school-based health services and after-school programs and enhancing family engagement) with discipline reform and by initiating a focused effort to improve supports for African American males.

The Obama administration's new initiative, coming on the heels of federal school discipline guidance released last month, is expected to further accelerate the trend of reforming discipline practices in order to keep students in school and learning.

Knowing that there is a better way, the movement for change is growing. And we need that to keep happening. At the Atlantic Philanthropies, we have invested in this national push for positive discipline alternatives because of the threat that zero tolerance policies pose to our nation's most vulnerable children.

If we can help more young men graduate, it gives them the opportunity to reach their potential and the opportunity for us as a nation to reach ours.