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Extreme School Discipline and Frequent Suspensions Fail Us All

Frank Knaack,
Executive Director, ACLU of South Carolina
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July 21, 2011

On Christmas Eve 2004, thirteen year-old Francisco De Luna’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Less than five months later, Francisco was introduced to the Texas criminal justice system for the first time. His crime? According to the narrative attached to his ticket, he had a defiant attitude toward school officials and “did not want to learn.” Really? After enduring a family tragedy, Francisco started acting out, as many kids do when trying to cope with such a loss. During the next two and a half years, Francisco received a dozen more criminal tickets for wearing baggy pants, cursing, and refusing to follow teacher’s instructions. But instead of recognizing the fragile and sensitive nature of Francisco’s situation, school officials criminalized his behavior. Unfortunately, Francisco’s case is not unique to Texas, or to the rest of the United States.

This week, Texas A & M University and the Council of State Governments released a devastating report on the scope and impact of harsh school disciplinary practices in Texas schools. The report, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, looked at both the school and juvenile records of nearly one million Texas students and found that the use of extraordinary punishment for ordinary misbehavior has become commonplace in Texas public schools.

The report illustrates the imperative behind the ACLU’s efforts to seal off the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels children out of the public school system and into the criminal justice system. This misguided and counterproductive approach to school discipline has had a devastating impact on our youth, our communities, and our economy. As studies have consistently shown, a student’s disciplinary history is a major indicator of a student’s likelihood of dropping out of school. A child’s future is often irreparably damaged as a result of such excessive discipline. Suspensions and expulsions frequently result in kids dropping out and those dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated and contribute less to the economy. To make matters worse, research suggests that these policies are ultimately ineffective and have not reduced crimes committed inside schools.

The Breaking Schools’ Rules findings are shocking. For example:

  • Almost 60 percent of students in Texas were either suspended or expelled during their middle or high school years;
  • African American 9th graders were 31 percent more likely than their white counterparts to receive a discretionary disciplinary action;
  • 10 percent of students who faced disciplinary actions dropped out, versus 2 percent of students who did not face disciplinary action;
  • 23 percent of students who faced disciplinary actions came into contact with the juvenile justice system, versus 2 percent of students who did not face disciplinary action.

We must take action to ensure that kids like Francisco will no longer be subjected to such severe and counterproductive punishment for simply acting like teenagers. Francisco has since dropped out of school and has no plans to return. His mother wants him to go to the local community college to learn a trade, but for now he’s working at the local Outback Steakhouse.

With the future of thousands of students like Francisco in peril, it is high time for our elected leaders to put an end to these ineffective and counterproductive approaches to discipline in schools. They should instead focus on providing disciplinary alternatives that keep children in school through school-based interventions like counseling and positive reinforcement for good behavior. These approaches are far more likely to yield better outcomes for teenagers.

Want to help? Please visit the ACLU of Texas’ Educate, Don’t Incarcerate website to find out more about the school-to-prison pipeline and to learn how you can help to seal it off.

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