by Julia Steiny
Last year in Colorado, a group called Padres Y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United) managed to get their Legislature to pass the "Smart School Discipline Law." Now schools must, by law, use "restorative justice or other disciplinary policies before resorting to the harsh punishments of suspension, expulsion, or at worst, referral to law-enforcement." In other words, Colorado's schools had to turn down the spigot that streams kids into the school-to-prison pipeline. Very civilized.
Then this past March the parents' group reported that in less than a year, suspensions were down statewide by a healthy 10 percent and expulsions by a stunning 25 percent. How lovely to live in a state whose schools would jump on such an initiative so enthusiastically. The results were uneven among schools, so some apparently didn't bother. But most did.
However — and this is big — the pattern of racial disparities did not change. Reductions were roughly the same across all groups, so the all-too-familiar gaps remained the same. While upsetting, it's no big surprise. Much about school kick-out culture is just silly. But there are other deeper, culturally-rooted issues. I'll touch on each.
Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills.
Rhode Island's suspension data, which I know intimately, is typical of urbanized states and easy to summarize. Of the 39 offenses that gets kids suspended, 71 percent of them last year were for these 5 offenses:
* Attendance-Cut/Skipped Class
* Attendance-Cut/Skipped Detention
* Attendance/Left School Grounds
* Disorderly Conduct
Yes, disrespect can get ugly. But in the scheme of things, these offenses are pretty small potatoes. Like the national data, RI's suspensions reveal that real problems — drug-dealing, violence — are quite rare. But if kids mouth off or avoid class, they get an awful lot of vacations on the couch in front of the TV. They learn nothing.
Until this past year, Rhode Island schools suspended kids for bunking school. Yep, let's make the problem worse.
Not to disparage their feat, but I'm betting the go-getter Colorado schools merely took on the task, at last, of dumping such counter-productive policies. Kids greatly prefer TV to being held accountable for their behavior. It's super-convenient to toss a misbehaving kid out of school, while it's a bit of work to treat brat behavior as a teachable moment. Colorado is showing that schools can find productive solutions to obnoxious kid behavior.
Changing racial disparities will be a heavier lift.
Race is highly correlated with poverty. So no, the racial disparities that are driven by aggressive street culture are not going to disappear soon. Schools don't have to make things worse with kick-out culture. But it's understandable and super-common that low-income families who struggle to survive teach their kids jungle-survival skills.
Recently a doe-eyed 8th grader talked about being suspended constantly in her old school, mainly for fighting. This past September her family moved from one poor city to another, and she began attending a school that uses restorative practices. She told funny stories about her beginnings as a hellion who was flunking everything, but then worked with school adults — Guidance, social services and others — who helped her take charge of the behavior that was getting her nowhere. With mixed glee and chagrin she confessed "I liked fighting. But I was getting an 8 in science," out of 100. As though it were miraculous, she enthused, "Now I'm getting an 86 in science!" Then she took a deep breath, sighed and said, "But my dad doesn't really get it."
Actually, Dad is furious about her becoming a peaceful good student. Like millions of American urban kids, she's been growing up on seriously mean streets. So her father taught her to fight first and ask questions later. In effect, a positive school culture came between her and her dad. Dad's buy-in is still very much a work in progress.
Even so, she's a success story. Many aren't. Low-income homes and âhoods too often steep kids in hostile, foul-mouthed environments, so where on earth would they learn otherwise unless someone took the trouble to teach them? At urban schools, street culture collides with the values of building academic skills to gain credentials, degrees and skilled jobs. Kicking kids out puts them back where they learned to swear and fight in the first place.
But the Colorado schools are on their way, impressively. Surely they'll get increasingly adept at teaching community-appropriate behavior. Silly suspensions will fade. But cultural issues will persist because they're embedded in the communities themselves. The hard problems will require working closely with the parents and community. And that will take time, effort and resources.
No school should put up with rotten behavior. But kicking kids out just postpones the real work. Colorado's gutsy law will provide rich lessons for the rest of the states. The sooner the better.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.