Dienstag, Dezember 13, 2005

Don't kick kids out of school: Suspensions are long-term disasters for youth, says Jane R. Wettach

Jane R. Wettach - Source: Law.duke.eduPicture this: High school students changing classes, hanging out with friends, trading comments. A fight starts. Fists fly, friends on either side join in. The fight is broken up by other students after a few minutes and everyone moves on to class. No one is seriously hurt -- until news of the fight gets to school administrators: all the participants are kicked out of school for the remainder of the year.

As a result of their total exclusion from the educational system, most of them will fail their grade; many will be too demoralized to ever return to school. Some may end up in prison before the time when they are permitted to return to school.

When the Triangle Lost Generation Task Force examines the causes of the downward spiral of certain African-American and Latino men, it should work to bring public attention to the disproportionate and ineffective response of the public school administrators -- particularly in Wake County -- to the behavior of these young men. "Zero-tolerance" policies, which mandate that students who fight must be suspended for an entire school year, affected more than 750 students in Wake County in 2003-04, the last year for which statistics are available from the state Department of Public Instruction. Well more than half of those affected were African-American and Latino boys.

This "zero tolerance" approach is defended on the grounds that the school must be safe and violence cannot be tolerated. Students must learn that education is a privilege and if it is abused, it will be taken away. The "bad apples" must be removed to allow for the rule-abiding students to have the opportunity to learn without the disruptions and danger presented by the students who disobey the rules.

On their face, these justifications have rhetorical appeal. Regrettably, they rarely hold up in practice.

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Social science research studies about long-term suspensions are virtually unanimous in reaching the conclusion that frequent suspensions, particularly long ones, are an ineffective discipline tool that neither makes schools safer nor improves the behavior of the offending child. The studies indicate that long suspensions are more likely to encourage antisocial behavior than prevent it, and schools that routinely use suspensions create an overall negative atmosphere that exacerbates the dysfunctional behavior of students. (...)

Yet we punish adolescents with very severe consequences -- extended exclusion from school -- as if they had the capacity to make fully reasoned and rational decisions and act accordingly.

While fighting need not be tolerated, a year-long suspension is the wrong response from educators. Long-term exclusion from school should be reserved only for those students who truly endanger their classmates, and few fights do. Most take place in the halls, on the sidewalks or off-campus, and thus do not disrupt the learning environment for the rule-abiding students. (...)

At the same time, society as a whole has a role. Many of the suspended students are those from the poorest families, with the lowest academic achievement and the least amount of family and social support. Their anger may well be expressing the distress of living in poverty amid a society of material excess, of living in a home without a father, of attending schools that do not recognize their learning needs or respect their culture. Until we are willing to address these greater problems in an aggressive and forthright way, the school-to-prison pipeline is not likely to be interrupted.

(Jane Wettach is a clinical professor of law at Duke Law School and director of the Children's Education Law Clinic. The clinic is a program of Duke Law School in which law students represent children with school-related legal issues, including suspensions.)
[ Source and full article: NewsObserver.com (NC) ]