Claudia Gomez is a petite Latina with big earrings and even bigger dreams for the future. But her future wasn't always this bright.
Despite being the valedictorian of her eighth grade class, Claudia was expelled from her high school as a freshman because of a fight with another student. She attended several other schools across town where she was suspended numerous times for being tardy and engaging in verbal fights with other students who teased her. Eventually she fell behind in her work and dropped out.
But none of these punitive disciplinary measures could fix her broken heart.
At age 12, her older sister was shot and killed, and her other sister was shot as well in the same incident. "All the time I was struggling with anger management and transportation issues, no one ever asked me what they could do to help," she remembered.
Now Claudia is on track to finish high school and she's an organizer with Youth Justice Coalition, telling her story to anybody who will listen and help change the system that didn't hear the hurt behind her anger.
Claudia's story highlights one important aspect of our education system that is failing our kids: excessive school discipline. For too long, politicians have peddled a simplistic, "tough love" approach to school discipline that emphasizes suspensions and expulsions. The numbers are alarming. In California alone, over 400,000 students were suspended in 2009-2010. That equates to tens of millions of hours of lost classroom time for our nation's youth.
But the infractions that led to these punitive disciplinary actions are not what most people expect. A recent national study found that over 43% of disciplinary exclusions were for "insubordination" violations (i.e., talking back, "willful defiance," etc.) and less than 1% was for possession or use of firearms.
As you can imagine, the educational consequences for these students are enormous. Statistics show that students who are suspended at least once are three times more likely to drop out. And the correlation between expulsions and participation in the juvenile justice system is direct and incontrovertible.
Another disturbing aspect of these disciplinary policies is how disproportionately they are applied to different groups. Latinos are more likely than white students to receive suspensions. Students with disabilities are twice as likely to get these higher forms of punishment. These large differences continue to be found even when researchers compare students of similar backgrounds.
Despite all the rhetoric, the research is clear. Pushing children out of school through harsh disciplinary policies simply does not improve educational performance - either individually or for a school as a whole. No study has been able to show that these draconian policies provide any significant pedagogical benefit.
Fortunately, the tide is turning. Educators, parents, policymakers, and students like Claudia have been forcefully advocating for another approach.
Some of the changes are going to happen through action at the highest levels. This year Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters that "the sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school."
Here in California legislators are looking at common sense solutions for schools that suspend more than 25% of their students, year after year, and challenging them to do better. Another bill would change the definition of "willful defiance," which can lead to a student being suspended for anything from failing to turn in homework, not paying attention, refusing to follow directions to take off a coat or hat, or swearing in class. You can read more at MejorandolaDisciplina.org / FixSchoolDiscipline.org.
But change is also going to happen one school at a time, one teacher at a time, one student at a time. There's a quiet revolution happening around school discipline. It's a parent revolution of having a voice about what's happening at their children's schools. It's a teacher revolution of moving from managing classrooms to getting professional support to help all students succeed. It's a community revolution that's bringing community organizers, judges and law enforcement to the table. It's a student revolution of taking responsibility for behavior and working to change it.
As Claudia said, getting suspended is "days without you getting your education." That's how we're all looking at it.
Hernán Vera is president and CEO of Public Counsel, the nation's largest pro bono law firm.