Today, the North Carolina Supreme Court heard the case of two young women in Beaufort County who were egregiously punished for their involvement in a weaponless schoolyard fight. These two African-American students were not only expelled from school, they were also denied access to an alternative school as well as home tutoring for an entire semester, effectively stopping their education for several months. The lawyers for the young women will argue that depriving these students of a semester of school is a violation of their state constitutional right to an education.
In a compelling New York Times article, Erik Eckholm writes about the obvious racial imbalance of out of-school suspensions. He points out,
some 15 percent of the nation’s black students in grades K-12 are suspended at least briefly each year, compared with 4.8 percent of white students, according to federal data from 2006, the latest available. Expulsions are meted out to one in 200 black students versus one in 1,000 white students.
The decision of who is suspended is, to a certain extent, arbitrary and vulnerable to racism, whether intentional or not. As the ACLU Racial Justice Program discovered in a landmark lawsuit in Winner, South Dakota, racial minority students are often disproportionately sent to law enforcement and more likely to be punished with harsher disciplinary measures.
Students who misbehave should undoubtedly face consequences, but pushing kids out of the classroom for normal adolescent behavior disrupts their learning and development and encourages the school-to-prison pipeline, the disturbing national trend in which children, and disproportionately children of color, are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Our children are being handcuffed, arrested, suspended, and expelled for incidents that older generations were rightfully sent to the principal’s office for. These “zero tolerance” policies hurt our schools, our students, and our country, by squandering the potential of so many capable students and telling them that their misbehavior means they are not worthy of receiving the same education and the same opportunities as their peers.