“Suspensions and expulsions often disengage and disconnect students from school, feed students into the juvenile system and criminalize children at increasingly younger ages: instigating a Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Harsh and punitive policies, including zero tolerance and the overuse of suspension and expulsion, can devastate the lives of children. We are committed to educational equity and reform to ensure the highest quality education for all students.
“In 2013 and 2014, AASA and The Children’s Defense Fund entered a partnership to explore alternative school district practices and system wide solutions for school leaders to bring back to their districts. This initiative was funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies….”
One of the school districts supported by this initiative has been Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“A group of Pennsylvania teachers is sharing horror stories of getting beaten up by pupils as young as 6 — and begging their school district for help.
“I have been kicked, punched, hit, scratched. I’ve had a student physically restraining me in front of my other students… And many of the personal things that I have bought for my classroom have been broken or destroyed,” first-grade teacher Amanda Sheaffer told the Harrisburg school board at its meeting Monday, according to the news website PennLive.
“Many minutes are spent each day dealing with violence that is happening in the classroom,” Sheaffer said. “How am I supposed to have a safe, nurturing learning environment when this behavior happens?”
“Sheaffer was one of about a half-dozen elementary school teachers and several parents who implored the board for help in dealing with increasingly violent and troubled kids.
“We aren’t complaining. We are here begging for help so that we can help those students,” said Harrisburg Education Association president Jody Barksdale.
“Barksdale represents some of the teachers asking for help and brought similar concerns to the board in January, according to PennLive.
“At least 45 teachers resigned between July and October because of kids terrorizing their classrooms, Barksdale claimed, according to Fox 43.
“Teachers and students are being hit, kicked, slapped, scratched, cussed at … and observing other students flip over tables, desks and chairs,” she said. “Teachers have had to take the rest of their class into the hallway to protect them during these outbursts. Not much has changed since last January.”
Indeed, these include schools (Harrisburg, PA) in which the disciplinary reforms had been instituted only a few years ago. It is clear that the students have learned something: they have learned that there are no meaningful consequences for misbehavior at these schools. It is not yet clear whether the administrators have learned anything.
An article in today’s Virginian-Pilot (https://tinyurl.com/y8wdvyo2) informs us that “Virginia Beach schools see a drop in suspensions. But teachers feel less safe.” These changes have followed the adoption of certain disciplinary practices that have already been implemented in numerous other school districts throughout the country. Termed “restorative justice,” these practices seek to reduce the number of suspensions by employing alternative interventions. Such an intervention could range from a teacher-student dialogue to a more formal conference involving students, staff, teachers and family members; in any case, the goal is to encourage students to reflect on their actions, take responsibility for them, and resolve to be better behaved in the future.
Although the number of suspensions has gone down in the past year, this reduction has come at a price. According to the Pilot, “more than 1 in 8 teachers said their school did not provide a safe and orderly place to learn,” about double the ratio from the previous year. The article continues, “Some students are more comfortable acting out…because they’re not worried about punishment.”
Let’s have a look at the effects that these disciplinary policy changes have had in other school districts. In New York City, according to a study published by the Manhattan Institute, there have been fewer suspensions; however, there have been dramatic increases in violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity. Furthermore, the non-elementary schools with the greatest percentage of minority students have suffered the worst declines in climate. The same study reports that in Chicago, a teacher told the Chicago Tribune that the new disciplinary policies resulted in “a totally lawless few months” at her school. Says Max Eden, the study’s author, students in Denver threatened to harm or kill teachers “with no meaningful consequences” under the new practices. A teacher is quoted as saying “classes are being disrupted, student learning is being decreased…in all grade levels” in the Omaha World-Herald. In Oklahoma City, “Good students are now suffering because of the abuse and issues plaguing these classrooms.” (See the full report here: https://tinyurl.com/ybggk628.)
It is clear that these are not trends we would like to see in the Virginia Beach schools. Disciplinary policy reform for reducing the number of suspensions is a laudable goal. The challenge, as ever, is to reduce the number of disciplinary cases by getting to their organic causes. This should not be done at the expense of school climate and classroom safety. Let us work with the school administration, teacher advocacy groups, our elected officials, and other concerned members of the community to ensure that these policy reforms are truly in the best interests of our children and teachers.