The case of Zachery Christie, the 6-year-old from Delaware who was suspended from school for bringing a camping utensil to lunch, is now a familiar story. Initially, his punishment was 45 days in an alternative school. Fortunately for Christie, the school board amended its policies to readmit him following a brief suspension. Many students are not as fortunate, and disciplinary infractions can result in removal from school, or even criminal charges. In too many cases, this marks the student's entry into the school-to-prison pipeline, which are the policies and practices through which many school children, disproportionately represented by minority students and students with special needs, are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.
In response to cases such as Christie's, the state legislature formed the Delaware School Discipline Task Force, which includes state representatives, law enforcement officers, education officials, and community activists (including the ACLU of Delaware).
This January, the task force made recommendations to improve Delaware law and create safer schools. Among other things, the task force recommended:
- that zero-tolerance policies, which require the suspension or expulsion of a student regardless of age or circumstances, be reserved for the most serious violations of a school's code of conduct;
- that school principals only report to police misdemeanor offenses committed by children 12 years of age and older (currently, the minimum age is 9); and
- that schools replace immediate arrests for misdemeanors (except sex crimes and weapons offenses) with a three-step process: a written warning, school mediation and finally, arrest, so that students who commit more minor offenses are not automatically referred to the juvenile justice system.
On March 5, the ACLU of Delaware hosted a public forum to discuss how schools, law enforcement agencies and the courts can work together to keep children in school and out of the juvenile justice system.
Among the participants was Georgia Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske, whose efforts to dramatically reduce the number of young people sent from school to court in Clayton County has met with tremendous success. Indeed, a blue ribbon commission on school discipline reported that, following the implementation of a cooperative agreement between the court, the school, the police and other stakeholders, referrals from school to the juvenile court for fighting (known as "affrays") decreased 87 percent.
Judge Teske's work shows us that, in Delaware and across the country, we can keep our youth in school and keep them safe at the same time. We hope Delaware will continue the conversation about how to create school discipline policies that are fair and effective, and treat young people with dignity.