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Teach Your Children Well

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November 18, 2009

This coming Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights. The convention has been ratified by nearly every country in the world, except for the United States. The convention would fill current gaps in U.S. laws, and provide all children in America with the same robust protections that children in 193 countries are already entitled to.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognizing “the right of the child to education,” specifies that education “shall be directed to…the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.”

The convention also requires “all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity,” and mandates the implementation of the convention’s guarantees “without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s…race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.”

For far too many young people in America, a system of education structured according to these principles is simply not available. Our zero-tolerance approach to education and school safety, characterized by an overzealous reliance on punitive measures and law enforcement, has sent countless children down the school-to-prison pipeline, robbing them of the educational development and human dignity afforded by the convention.

Just this month in Chicago, a food fight ended with the arrest of more than two dozen students, who will struggle to overcome the emotional and practical damage done by this kind of police encounter. Indeed, research has shown that being arrested significantly increases a young person’s odds of dropping out of school, lowers standardized test scores, reduces future employment prospects, and increases the likelihood of future interaction with the criminal justice system. Yet in 2005, almost 70 percent of public school students ages 12 to 18 reported that police officers or security guards patrolled their hallways

Last month in Delaware, a first-grader was suspended for bringing a camping tool — which his school deemed a weapon — to class. He was in good company. According to 2006 U.S. Department of Education data collection, 3.3 million students received out-of-school suspensions and more than 100,000 students were expelled from school. Students of color, disproportionately subjected to harsh disciplinary measures, bear the brunt of this over-criminalization.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we must imagine an approach to education guided by the principles of human dignity, freedom from discrimination, and the full development of every child.

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