Horace Mann, a champion of public schools and a Brown alumnus, dubbed education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men.” However, current punitive policies proliferating in today’s public schools are preventing the US education system from reaching this ideal. In the current system, students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-resource communities are not given the same opportunities to succeed in school as their more privileged peers. Instead of providing infrastructure to foster success, schools disproportionately push marginalized students towards incarceration with out-of-school-suspensions (OSS). These suspensions usually last a few days, during which the suspended student is completely barred from regular school activities. Thought it seems benign, such a disciplinary measure actually does more harm than good, not only because it’s ineffective, but also because it feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.
In 2012, Governor Raimondo signed a law that limited the use of OSS for minor infractions such as truancy. Simply reducing the use of OSS, however, is insufficient in supporting students with behavioral problems. Schools must be required to have on-campus disciplinary alternatives—such as peer mediation, restorative justice, and counseling—or risk sustaining an education system that fails to provide adequate support for students and perpetuates a cycle of discrimination and ineffective punishments.
Support for OSS stems from the belief that through exclusionary and punitive punishments that remove students from the classroom for an extended period of time, students will be forced to reflect on their actions and will not continue to negatively influence their peers. Several studies, however, have found that removing students from school for an extended period forces students to miss crucial instruction time and fall behind their peers. Without additional support upon reentry, suspended students often fail to catch up and become overwhelmed, which then leads to more problematic behavior and more punishment. Thus, OSS creates an inescapable cycle of punishments. One student from E-Cubed Academy explains, “If you miss school, you get frustrated, and if you get frustrated, you act out.” Such a relatable sentiment reveals the education system’s problematic attitudes toward discipline: By pushing out students for minor offenses, rather than providing help or counseling, schools are treating behavioral and educational issues as law and order issues. Educators are criminalizing the very students who need the most help and support.
The fact is, suspension does not change the problematic behavior of students. Instead, these measures push students to become repeat offenders. After only one suspension, a student becomes three times more likely to drop out of school. Students who drop out are more likely to enter the prison system: School dropouts compose 82 percent of the adult prison population and 85 percent of juvenile justice cases. Furthermore, despite laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and ability, OSS disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities. In Rhode Island, from kindergarten to middle school, Hispanic children are three times more likely to be suspended and Black children are six times more likely to be suspended when compared to their white peers. Similarly, students with disabilities make up 31 percent of suspensions, though they only make up 15 percent of the student population. As a result, many people from marginalized groups are essentially being thrown down the path towards the prison system as students.
This is not to say that suspensions and expulsions should be abolished completely. Rather, it’s important to reserve such measures as a last resort in cases where a student poses a serious threat to themselves or their environments. In most cases, though, teachers should opt for more constructive and inclusive measures to ensure that every student learns from their mistakes and continues to succeed academically and socially.
In order to encourage good behavior, it’s imperative for students to feel that they’re a part of their school community. In lieu of suspensions, restorative practice methods can help students feel more supported and encourage the positive reflection that OSS does not. Restorative justice circles, for instance, allow students to be held accountable for their actions and help them learn to make reparations with the community. These circles emphasize repairing harm in relationships over punishing someone for their actions. Through these mediated discussions, students can share their perspectives and learn from each other, thus fostering the sense of belonging, social responsibility, and constructive reflection that is critical to reducing future offenses.
Other alternatives to OSS focus on preventative measures that promote future growth. Often, behavioral issues are treated as criminal offenses while the root cause is left unresolved. Counseling can be an effective solution. Personalized counseling sessions that address problematic behaviors after an incident can help teachers understand why a student acted out: which, down the road, is much more important than what the student did in one particular moment. Understanding the root cause of behavior allows educators to develop targeted action plans to curb future offenses—a strategy with a much better chance of preventing repeat offenses than simply ostracizing offending students.
Despite the benefits of these alternatives, current RI law does not offer or require these alternatives to be available in schools. In 2016, Rhode Island State Representative and special education teacher Marcia Ranglin-Vassell introduced bill H7153, which is currently being held for further study. This bill strengthens the current law limiting suspensions by requiring every school district to provide alternative programs to OSS. The bill cites “prevention, intervention, restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling, and other approaches to address student misconduct” as alternatives to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. To reduce the loss of instruction time, the bill goes on to propose that every school should have “an alternative educational setting” that is run by a certified teacher. Under the bill, students who have not been deemed a physical threat cannot be suspended for minor or subjective offenses such as dress code violations or insubordination. These measures stress the importance of providing alternatives that reduce the risk of criminal behavior, and ensure that students do not fall behind academically.
When it comes to punitive measures in schools, Rhode Island has taken steps in the right direction. But without required alternatives, the current education system will continue to perpetuate a cycle of discrimination and ineffective punishments. It’s time to take a closer look at bill H7153 and seriously consider how to move toward a more inclusive and supportive school system.
Photo: “School Education“