School discipline needs an overhaul | Tate

There is a lot of talk and activism around school discipline these days and I happen to be serving on the Kent School District (KSD) committee to review its discipline policies.

The committee is made up largely of school administrators, but also includes representation for teachers and community members which includes parents.

It's always tough to talk about discipline issues because there are so many different perspectives and positions. However, the current committee members show extraordinary commitment by agreeing to continue the discussion beyond the originally scheduled meeting dates. Furthermore, it is quite evident that these committee members care about the community's children.

As a school administrator in the past I suspended many, many students. Among the concerns that teachers had about student discipline was that the response to a school violation provided consequences that were fair to all parties concerned. Most parents and students felt likewise.

Among other discipline-related issues, obviously safety would be a major concern for teachers, other staff and students during any discussions around student discipline. There are many discipline situations wherein if a student was not removed from the classroom or the school, it would create an unsafe environment and students and staff could become very concerned about the ability of the school leaders to maintain order. Some suspensions are necessary.

On the other hand, parents certainly don't want students suspended from school while they are at work. That point came through so loud and clear that as an administrator I pulled together a team of community organizations to work with and supervise some students who were suspended during their days on out of school suspension. Although this is not the time or place to discuss the details of that program, it was apparent that the program also served many more students whose parents never complained about the length of their child's suspension.

For many, schools are home

I could tell you stories about home life for many students that would be chilling. But suffice it to say, that for an enormous number of students, schools are the only safe haven, the only place where they have structure, the only place they encounter positive role models in their young lives. The proper socialization process that takes place at school is absolutely critical to their success in life because too many don't receive that from home.

A school administrator is often caught in the middle knowing also that suspending students leads to more student failures, to higher dropout rates, and eventually more ending up in jail. So what's the answer?

Some parents can't, won't or don't do enough to support their children's education. In some such instances, the community must do so. That's a major reason why education is compulsory; a good education also can help level the playing field for a child's success in life regardless of the parents contribution. And, in addition to our need for human compassion, a democratic society needs an educated populace to thrive.

In the words of John Dewey, "... What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy ..."

The answer is clear, the education of children is not just a parent and school concern, it's the concern of a caring community and society as well. We must find ways to support students, educators and parents. That means finding ways to reduce the number of suspensions while keeping students and staff in a safe learning environment. And when it becomes necessary to remove a student from school, provide their families with options for students to be placed in another educational setting. There is a large amount of research and best practice information with proven strategies for to accomplish those ends.

The KSD published a document indicating the numbers of students suspended from the KSD in each of the years from 2007 through 2011. Of the students suspended or expelled anywhere from one day to more than 21 days in the 2011 school year 30 were American/Alaskan native, 134 Asian, 757 black, 74 Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 515 Hispanic/Latino, 191 multiracial, 81 information not provided, and 885 white students for a total of 2,586 suspended students.

Think about how many of these students were out on the streets being recruited by gang members, making babies, entering homes, shoplifting or just sitting at home watching TV and wasting time, all while many parents are at work.

The research says for many students suspension from school is their first step toward jail and the beginning of many other negative effects on the student, family and community, yet there is little evidence to indicate that suspensions changes the suspended students' behavior.

Another way to view it is, we care now or we pay later. Let's care now by changing the conversation from one of how many days does a student get suspended to having conversations first about what is our guiding principles around discipline of the community's children? How do we responsibly reduce the numbers of suspensions? What alternatives can we provide to the numbers of unsupervised suspension? And where do we get the resources to implement proven strategies to meet those ends?

Melvin Tate is a regular contributor to the Kent Reporter.

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