We have an epidemic. It plagues our schools. It pushes our most vulnerable students into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The problem: our schools are infected by overly-harsh discipline policies and practices, which create a school-to-prison pipeline.
Too often, students are suspended, expelled or even arrested for what is simply classroom disruption. Who are the students most harmed by this trend? Studies show that zero-tolerance and other harsh discipline policies and practices disproportionately affect students of color, LGBTQ youth, and students with learning disabilities.
We all know that classroom management is essential to learning, over-relying on punishment to address behavior is harmful and ineffective.
We are at a point where discipline is no longer a learning tool – instead, student behavior has been criminalized. As a result, students are being forced out of the schoolhouse and into the jailhouse. Just one contact with the juvenile and/or criminal justice system is enough to accelerate a downward spiral – and negatively impact our students’ educational and life outcomes.
I was made aware of the severity of the school-to-prison pipeline by a young man I met in Mississippi, who spent 21 days in a juvenile detention center for talking back in class. And he is not alone. There are countless students like him in classrooms and communities across the country.
In 2013, the National Education Association (NEA) made a formal commitment to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Since then, NEA leaders and members have helped raise awareness of the issue, shape district and state policies, and provide resources on restorative practices.
Last year, to advance the work of our commitment to address institutional racism, NEA President, Lily Eskelsen-García, created a task force that worked all year to study the school-to-prison pipeline and develop possible ways that NEA can get involved. The task force deliberated extensively and drafted a policy statement that was approved by the NEA Board of Directors in April and by our Representative Assembly July 6, 2016.
The policy statement sets forth Five Guiding Principles. They are:
Eliminating Disparities in Discipline Practices. We must work to eradicate policies and procedures that have a negative disproportionate impact on students of color, students with disabilities, and our LGBTQ students.
Creating a Supportive & Nurturing School Climate. This means focusing on student strengths instead of weaknesses by using restorative practices and other positive supports that encourage healthy relationships with the school community. It creates learning environments that have appropriate resources ― like school counselors and other health professionals. It also means, eventually eliminating the presence of law enforcement on school campuses. We will also strive to remove those physical elements, such as windows with bars, security cameras, and metal detectors that make school feel more like prison and less like a place of learning.
Professional Training & Development. This will call on NEA to provide the time, training and resources to help all educators recognize, create, and utilize appropriate discipline techniques, so that our students are met on a culturally competent level and educators are empowered.
The Policy Statement calls on NEA to expand its wider community work and partner with others to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline. We refer to this principle as Partnerships & Community Engagement.
Student & Family Engagement. NEA must encourage student and family engagement in reforming discipline policies. As educators, we know that public education is vital to building respect for the worth, dignity, and equality of every student in our schools and we can’t do this without the input and support of students and their families.
With these Five Guiding Principles firmly in mind, the Policy Statement is framed as a call to action. We need NEA, every affiliate, every local, and every single member to advance these goals.
As educators, we are late to the game in addressing this issue. We owe a debt of gratitude to civil rights, youth and family organizations that have been on the front lines of this fight for decades highlighting the impact zero tolerance policies were having on our children - like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a nationwide coalition of youth and parent groups across the country, in many of the places we serve, organizing to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. And national organizations like Advancement Project, who along with DC’s Critical Exposure and Ohio’s Racial Justice Now! took the time to meet with our taskforce to provide needed input and guidance.
This policy statement is about US – the educators, and not assessing blame on others! If there’s anything we can do to end the flow of students into the school-to-prison pipeline, we MUST do it. We help shape the minds and lives of every student we touch. This work is part of our core mission: GREAT PUBLIC SCHOOLS FOR EVERY STUDENT.
Dr. Gilbert is an educator and is an executive committee member of the National Education Association who chaired the NEA Discipline and School to Prison Pipeline Taskforce