I was always a good student, never experiencing trouble in school. But, my brother was just the opposite: distracted, always clowning around and acting out in the classroom. His best grades were never above a C. Yet, in spite of his poor performance, he graduated from high school and found a decent working class job. In the zero tolerance environments of today’s schools my brother would have been suspended or expelled for his disciplinary problems; as is the case with an estimated 4,000 students in Vermont’s public schools yearly.
The House and Senate are currently considering legislation to amend school disciplinary guidelines popularly known as “zero tolerance.” In the school year 2011 to 2012, public school students in Vermont lost 8,000 school days because of disciplinary suspensions at a cost of sixteen-thousand dollars a year per student. But even more disturbing, students with disabilities, and African and Native American students, were two to three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. In many cases, these suspensions were issued for non-violent offenses and infractions to school protocols, not because of safety or life-threatening incidents.
The punishment didn’t fit the crime. Yet, the results of these suspensions are devastating: children can lose up to 90 days of classroom time and can’t keep up academically; the school climate becomes more negative; and children don’t learn alternatives to managing the behavioral problems that got them there in the first place for now they’re out of school and unreachable. It’s the beginning of the school to prison pipeline.
The report, “Kicked Out,” by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, explains the problem and offers clear solutions. There are tested alternatives for supporting children with disciplinary problems, including restorative justice, peer mediation and individualized education and behavioral intervention and support plans.
I’m glad the legislature is paying attention to this issue. If passed, bills H.796 and S.194 will reduce exclusionary disciplining and encourage alternatives to improve safety and learning in schools for all children. But, policies alone will not stop the youth-drain that zero tolerance has created in our state. Vermont needs young workers and contributing citizens of all backgrounds! And we need resources and wide-spread commitment to make these changes happen.