Last week The New York Post splashed the image of 7-year-old Wilson Reyes in handcuffs on its cover. Reyes was accused of stealing $5 from another student and was then interrogated by police officers.
While this case may seem extreme, the core issues — criminalization of youth and unjust school disciplinary practices — are widespread and have been occurring for years.
In late January, the Wake County school board promoted a punitive culture in schools with a proposal to put private security guards in all 105 elementary schools.
For many schools that are struggling with limited resources and high numbers of students, keeping children safe and maintaining order presents challenges. Yet disciplinary approaches like zero-tolerance policies, where students face punishments like immediate expulsion, have had the effect of pushing many youth out of school for making poor choices.
According to Dignity in Schools, a youth advocacy organization, schools are suspending and expelling students at a rate more than double that of 1974. School-based arrests have also dramatically increased. Most arrests are for minor infractions. According to Dignity in Schools, high school students have been arrested for infractions such as participating in food fights, writing on a desk or breaking a pencil.
In practice, school disciplinary approaches fall along stark racial and socioeconomic divides.
According to Dignity in Schools, African-American and Latino students are 3.5 and 2 times more likely, respectively, to be expelled than white students. Children with disabilities are also disproportionately expelled and suspended.
Students who are pushed out of school are far more likely than their peers to enter the criminal justice system, a tragic channel labeled by many advocates as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
In an article for Teaching Tolerance, Marilyn Elias writes, “Policies that encourage police presence at schools, harsh tactics including physical restraint and automatic punishments that result in suspensions and out-of-class time are huge contributors to the pipeline.”
There are alternatives.
In a community forum sponsored by Chapel Hill-Carrboro Citizens Advocating for Racial Equity held Saturday in Carrboro, teachers, advocates and community members came out to discuss better approaches to school discipline.
Rather than focusing on punishing those who act out, there must be a broader understanding of a system that disadvantages children of color, children with disabilities, poor students and undocumented youth, who could face deportation for making one mistake in school.
Dignity in Schools has launched a campaign to place moratoriums on out-of-school suspensions, emphasizing approaches that do not limit students’ time in the classroom. Introducing positive alternatives that can help keep students in school provides the opportunity for social uplift and helps stem the pipeline.
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