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Paddling a child with a wooden board as school discipline is a practice that seems more typical of the Victorian era. But in 19 states where corporal punishment is legal, spanking students for breaking rules is a common occurrence in schools. Accordingly, many groups recommend—and many activists, educators, parents, and others demand—that physical punishment in schools be abolished.

Of increasing concern—and consistent with other discipline trends—is who gets paddled. Anecdotal and empirical evidence shows that a disproportionate number of the students receiving corporal punishment are black. According to federal statistics, black students are 16 percent of students enrolled in public schools but are 35 percent of those physically disciplined; black children receive physical punishment at almost three times the rate of their non-black peers. The decidedly racial tilt is also seen at the state level. In Mississippi, which tops the list in cases of corporal punishment, black students are 49 percent of the state’s student population and 64 percent of those paddled, far surpassing the number of white classmates (35 percent) receiving such discipline.

These striking racial disparities and a growing body of research asserting the detrimental effects of corporal punishment are prompting many to advocate against its use. Groups including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association strongly oppose the practice. A 2009 joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, A Violent Education, labels corporal punishment a violation of students’ “physical integrity and human dignity” and brands the practice “degrading, humiliating, and damaging.”

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(Photo: Stephen Pingry /Tulsa World)

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Suspending preschoolers for potty accidents and energetically kicking off shoes – strangely, punishing children for basically behaving like children – has reached an alarming level. And the pattern has a decidedly racial dimension. As child experts and researchers study the data regarding preschool suspensions and expulsions, they’re finding that it is adult behaviors, not children’s actions, which are fueling this trend. Searching for why so many Black preschoolers get suspended and expelled led me to some interesting answers.

But for some more astounding than these discipline statistics were the thousands of the nation’s youngest learners—nearly 8,000 preschoolers—suspended from school in the same year, often for relatively minor disruptions and misbehaviors. For researchers and educators immersed in this work, why preschoolers are put out of school and the entrenched racial disparity seems most closely tied to reasons such as teacher bias and children living in poverty whose hitting, biting, and pinching is frequently labeled misconduct rather than developmental delays.

What makes preschool-age suspensions and expulsions further problematic is how out-of-school punishment feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. Research shows that repeated suspensions breed student disengagement, making youth more likely to dropout and more susceptible to entering the juvenile justice system. This was the definitive conclusion of an October report from the Center for American Progress and the National Black Child Development Institute that highlights the trends, underlying causes and lasting harm of preschool suspension and expulsions. Pertinent to the groups’ findings is how little preschool discipline is rooted in young children’s behaviors as opposed to adult behaviors—due to implicit biases and a gross misunderstanding of toddler development.

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CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 28:  Chicago Police Sgt. Alan Lasch watches as students arrive at Laura Ward Elementary School on the Westside on August 28, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Lasch was posted at the school along with other police officers and city workers to provide "safe passage" to students walking to the school. The Safe Passage program was started because parents were worried about their children’s safety while they walked to school across gang boundaries after the city closed 49 elementary schools and moved the students to nearby schools.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Whatever title they hold – school resource officers, school safety agents or school police – the presence of law enforcement officers in K-12 public schools is a growing and, for some, disconcerting trend. In writing about school discipline this issue quickly began to assume outsize importance. With thousands of sworn law-enforcement officers now posted at U.S. public schools, social-justice activists, community leaders and parents are questioning the effect on campus culture.

Excerpt:

“The original point of SROs was to give young people the opportunity to interact with [police] officers in a positive way, and there is some reason to think this can be accomplished in some places,” said Emily Owens, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “But of course, having an officer means that there will be an increased likelihood that law enforcement is involved in what would otherwise be a disciplinary event.”

While law enforcement’s presence at schools is hardly a new phenomenon, its value and purpose has lately grown especially contentious. As police officers, those engaged in school-based law-enforcement are, in a way, “beat cops” who are often called on to serve as school disciplinarian. And some experts and juvenile-justice advocates cite systemic educational risks when police patrol school hallways. A report published by the Justice Policy Institute in 2011, “Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools,” concludes that placing SROs and other police in educational institutions exaggerates how school misbehavior, much of it involving minor infractions, is interpreted—to the extent that such activities can be treated as criminal offenses.

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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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School discipline reform is gaining traction in cities – Los Angeles, New York, Miami, to name a few – and states like California and Maryland. Suspended students lose millions of days of instruction and exclusionary discipline has other negative consequences. Urged on by activists and civil rights groups, a growing number of school districts and states are moving from zero tolerance to restorative justice. This week at The Atlantic I look at the status of some new policies and legislation on school discipline and how things are shaking out in the effort to close the discipline gap.

Excerpt:

“We go to schools where there are more SSAs than guidance counselors. For us, it makes us feel that they expect us to end up in jail rather than in college,” said Rodriguez, 17. “I’ve been to public school my whole life. I’ve experienced the school-to-prison pipeline”—a term commonly used to describe the trend in which largely disadvantaged students are funneled into the criminal-justice system—“and criminalization (of students). And I’ve questioned why all of these things happen to our communities.”

Policymakers and educators, among others, are beginning to question the harsh discipline policies and practices that have in recent decades became popular in certain districts, too. Research shows that the reliance on punitive school discipline like suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests—“school pushout”—deprives students of learning time and takes the greatest toll on nonwhite students, students with disabilities, LGBT youth and other vulnerable student groups. Suspensions can even harm the education of non-misbehaving students, according to some research.

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(Photo: YWCA Madison)