Sheila Bedi On a Federal Initiative to Keep Students in Schools and Off the Streets

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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 into 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 ages 20-34 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 way 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 low graduation and 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.

This includes some of the youth we work with such as six students in one Alabama school who together missed more than 445 school days last school year. These absences were due to suspensions for apparent minor misbehavior such as un-tucked shirts, tardiness or failing to carry a school ID. And a student in a Mississippi school was shackled to a railing for an entire school day because the student did not wear a belt to school. The student was even forced to eat lunch while handcuffed. One of our youngest clients, an 8-year-old Louisiana student was handcuffed and shackled after getting into a scuffle with a classmate.

Fortunately, others are recognizing this crisis. Last month, the 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 graduation 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.

Sheila Bedi is deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center where she leads the efforts on behalf of children in Mississippi and Louisiana and provides strategic guidance on select campaigns in other states.

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