Federal Initiative to Keep Students in Schools and Off the Streets is Step in Right Direction

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*Editor's Note: This article first appeared on Southern Poverty Law Center's website on 8/8/2011.

We all want our schools to be safe and orderly. Our teachers should be able to focus on teaching and our children should be able to focus on learning. Sadly, though, the effort to instill greater discipline in our schools has backfired. Instead of creating classrooms conducive to learning, schools have enacted policies that criminalize students and force teachers to spend more time on classroom management than teaching – an approach that better prepares students to be inmates than members of the workforce.

Currently, this country imprisons 2.2 million people – the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of nine African-American men from 20 to 34 years of age is behind bars. This is a civil rights crisis – one that begins in our country’s schools.

The Southern Poverty Law Center works to keep children in schools and out of the juvenile justice system by reforming the way teachers discipline students. We work with many youth who are led away from their classrooms in handcuffs and imprisoned because of over-policing in their schools and zero-tolerance policies. Others are pushed out of schools as a result of disciplinary sanctions.

Most of the youth we work with attend schools where administrators and teachers believe fear and an overly punitive environment are the only ways to maintain safety. While students must be held accountable for their actions and behave appropriately, studies have shown that when students experience harsh discipline practices they are less likely to graduate.

Exclusionary school discipline policies don’t just disconnect students from the learning environment. These policies disconnect entire families from schools and create conflict between parents and teachers who should be working together to ensure positive outcomes for students. This disconnect from the public schools is often intergenerational for families. Many parents, who were removed from schools because of ineffective and harsh disciplinary policies, are now raising children who receive the same treatment.

This is why the Southern Poverty Law Center has worked with communities to bring reform throughout the Southeast, where graduation rates are low but imprisonment rates are skyrocketing. Our efforts are currently focused on Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – four states where children are most at risk of being pushed out of school and ending up in the juvenile justice system.

Quite simply, there are too many schools where typical adolescent misbehavior that once resulted in a trip to the principal’s office now lands a student before a juvenile court judge.

Fortunately, others are recognizing this crisis. Last month, the U.S. departments of Justice and Education announced the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI), which will work with state and local education and justice officials to support effective and positive discipline policies. Its goal is to combat this phenomenon where school discipline policies push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

This is a step in the right direction that is long overdue – particularly for the South, where harsh discipline policies are taking a devastating toll.

For example, while the national graduation rate is 75 percent, states across the South have much lower rates, averaging less than 70 percent. In Louisiana alone, more than 15,000 students in the 7th through 12th grades were pushed out of school during the 2007- 08 school year. Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi had similarly low graduation rates, at 69 percent, 65 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

When students fail to graduate, communities suffer. This cost, according to national and government studies, includes millions of dollars in lost economic activity, increased social costs and crime. These discipline policies affect us all.

The launch of the SSDI is an encouraging sign that the federal government is recognizing this crisis within our schools. It sends a much-needed message to educators that pushing students out of school over minor misbehavior is misguided and dangerous policy.

For too long, schools across the country have promoted discipline policies that groomed students for the criminal justice system. Change has long been needed. The SSDI is a powerful signal it may be on its way.