"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," says the Statue of Liberty. But don't bother me with your disruptive, troubled, immature, angry, or generally bad kids.
America, the land that takes great pride in its history of inclusiveness and tolerance, has zero tolerance for disruptive, rude or misbehaving children.
Virtually every day, America's education press reports bizarre or outrageous stories about schools ousting certain kids. This morning, for example, the Associated Press reports that a 13-year-old in an Albuquerque school was "handcuffed and hauled off to a juvenile detention for burping in class." The P.E. teacher felt the kid had disrupted class, so she called the "School Resource Officer," an in-school cop. Please note that research shows that having police in schools often criminalizes what was once mere misbehavior. Horrible policy.
Surely there's more to the story about the disruptive burper, but one thing is clear: the teacher feared no repercussions from booting that kid. Likely he's universally disliked. His behavior canceled his right to stay in school.
Recently, the New York Police Department released a report showing that every day, on average, one student is arrested in the City's schools, removed in handcuffs. Painfully, 94% of them are black or Latino, and 83% are male.
When America was wealthier, in the 1990s, it supported its kick-out habit by building residential facilities, detention facilities (prisons) and "alternative placements," programs that segregate the bad kids from the good.
And these expensive exclusions are the mere tip of the iceberg. The National Center on Education Statistics reports that 7 percent of all K-12 students – which includes little kids – were either suspended or expelled in 2006, the most recent data.
Then there's "in-school suspension" and various other ways of putting kids out of class.
Tons of research shows that troubled kids only get worse when grouped with one another, away from the mainstream. Later, they return from prisons or in-school suspensions to communities or classrooms that didn't know how to deal with them in the first place.
"Discipline" means to teach. No one learns how to behave as a good community member when kicked onto the streets or into some rarified, hyper-controlled environment like a prison, special school, or suspension room.
Kids misbehave for one of two reasons. One: they know no other way of telling anyone they have problems they can't solve by themselves. Two: they don't know how to meet social expectations.
Granted, too few parents teach their kids manners. But who's teaching the parents? When and how do most kids learn social skills?
This school kick-out habit will be hard to break, because it's quite old. Factory-model schools were specifically designed to sort, sift and eliminate difficult kids. In 1950 the drop-out rate was 52%. Academic failures could easily find work in a robust manufacturing economy. That was then.
But now, here's the problem: suspending kids only postpones dealing with whatever the issue is. So it festers and gets worse. The truant elementary kid becomes a terror in middle school and perhaps a gang member by high school. Kicking kids out has contributed to America's prison population, globally the largest both by percentage of the population and in absolute numbers.
To reverse this trend, we would have to get in the habit of stopping the factory assembly line at the first sign of trouble and dealing with it then. Teach the kid how to behave; practice with him; make sure all the adults are modeling the behavior they want to see. Forge partnerships with social-service agencies to solve serious problems coming from the home.
Yes, that's much more work than kicking a kid out. But we don't really have a choice.
Consider, for example, what the Academy of American Pediatrics' Committee on School Health says about the kick-outs:
"Children who are suspended are often from a population that is the least likely to have supervision at home. Children with single parents are between 2 and 4 times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as are children with both parents at home, even when controlling for other social and demographic factorsâ¦ Children most likely to be suspended or expelled are those most in need of adult supervision and professional help. In one study, 15% of children who have never been abused but had witnessed domestic violence were suspended from school in the previous year. For students with major home-life stresses, academic suspension in turn provides yet another life stress that, when compounded with what is already occurring in their lives, may predispose them to even higher risks of behavioral problems."
Disruptive kids are a huge pain in the butt. But they're the ones who need us the most. Unless they're going to be locked away for the rest of their lives, they'll be back. They're ours.
Prevention is the best medicine. Partnerships between agencies and schools could send workers into homes and communities to deal with social distress and shoddy parenting. Investments on the front end – in curbing truancy and disruptive behavior among elementary kids – would save us expense and anguish on the back end.
âTis the season to rethink our habit of booting rude kids out. It's understandable, but not loving or kind. By all means discipline the unwanted behavior. But at the same time, hold on to the kids themselves, affectionately and unconditionally.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.