Teach (and Treat) Our Children Well

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

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.

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Livingston Thom...

I am delighted to discover that ACLU IS aware and are taking steps to fight against education injustices in public schools-especially when such injustices are targeted at students of color and those with disabilities. As a parent of a child with a disability, it's been my life long commitment fighting for the right of my child to receive equal education in the public district he's assigned. My child has two disadvantates, first, he's Afican American, and secondly, he's disabled. The school district in many ways has reminded him that he is not important, and that he will never mount to very much in life because of his disability. Such expressions is exemplified through their denial of basic educational services and opportunities to him especially when these services are entitled to him under the auspices of the law. I've appealed repeatilly to ACLU and NAACP for help in this matter, to no avail. The solution to changing these problems is not through marches and rally protests along, the most effective way is through legal action. Otherwise the problem of education disparty will continue to remain a display of an issue. He's twenty years old today and still remain in high school to compensate for the lost time and education services due him that would make him eligible to receive an high school diploma.

Adrian P Kenyon

In hudson Ohio, a majority of the high school was against the administration and police during a "drug search". not because they had drugs but because our 4th ammendment was denied. I later learned that as an 18 year old senior, i have no rights,(according to the school). 35 police cruisers, and 17 k9 units were deployed, on december 8, to search and seize "drugs". one student, out of 1800, had a pipe in his car. no other arrests were made. other students were suspended for not giving there phones to police. As a taxpayer, i find this to be a waste of time, money, services. Today, december 10, students organized a "walk out" to express their views on school policy. the school threatened the students, by announcing, on the P.A., that anyone attempting to excersise their first ammendment will be suspended. Even after being discouraged, many students walked out with picket signs. the police arrived and the students were suspended. the students never left the school grounds. the students peacefully protested and practiced their right to assemble, and freedom of speach. The ACLU is the only place i can go to voice this story. I believe George Washington, and the other founding fathers, would be standing with the students for standing up for what they believe is wrong. How can students be americans if they have no rights? who's to say the students were doing the wrong thing? The british said george washington was wrong for starting a revelution, but we consider him to be a national icon, or celebrity, or hero; not deviant, not unruley, not insubordinate, not delinquent. if we have rights and if you believe the students were within those rights, please contact me at hudson High school monday through friday. Most students don't know their rights, and "the man" will take advantage of young people this way, but I know thats not the way it should be. PLEASE HELP

Dean Leh

I strongly encourage the ACLU to continue working at the state and federal levels to demand and implement effective, evidence-based positive-disciplinary policies that will make juvenile justice facilities and schools safe for incarcerated teenagers and their teachers. The ACLU should continue to DEMAND positive, therapeutic programming and psychologically-based alternative approaches to discipline as essential elements for ending human/civil rights violations in our juvenile justice facilities and schools.

Dean Leh, M.A., M.S.Ed.

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