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Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Suspensions are rampant in public schools; there are better solutions

Over the past decade, the annual graduation rates from high schools in Texas have been between an abysmal 60-70 percent. For the state that has the second largest school system in the country, this translates into nearly 130,000 dropouts per year. Sadly, it is the schools themselves that contribute to these statistics, as many of their existing practices and policies tend to promote delinquency and disengagement from the classroom setting. Particularly, the manner in which student misbehavior is addressed has a significant impact on the odds of an individual graduating.

A recent report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that nearly 60 percent of 7th-12th graders were either suspended or expelled at least once, and among these students, drop out rates were significantly higher than students that did not face disciplinary action.

The report describes a draconian system that actively promotes the loss of students and feeds into the criminal justice pipeline. Nearly 15 percent of students were found to enter into the state’s juvenile justice system, a path that essentially guarantees some form of academic failure.

Strikingly, according to state law, only three percent of these suspensions and expulsions were mandated punishments. Of course, incidences of assault and other criminal offenses should be severely dealt with. However, with the remaining majority of punishments issued at the sole discretion of the school officials, the results are a largely arbitrary and capricious system of discipline. As testament, both African-American and Hispanic students face suspension and expulsion at grossly disproportionate rates compared to Anglo students. Accordingly, drop out rates for both minority groups are nearly double that of Anglos.

Much of the blame for such ham-fisted disciplinary practices can be placed on so called zero-tolerance policies that public schools have adopted. Common sense has given way to unnecessarily severe punishments for even minor infractions under the premise that cracking down on small forms of misbehavior will serve as a deterrent against larger violations. However, several studies, including one conducted by the National Association of School Psychologists, say that zero tolerance policies simply fail to reduce, and in some cases even increase, levels of student misbehavior.

The argument exists that reports such as this show only a correlation between harsh punishment and academic failings and not a cause-and-effect phenomenon. After all, students that misbehave inherently display a lack of regard towards their education. But the manner in which a student’s behavior is handled can either be an extra push out the door, or an attempt to pull a struggling student back in to the system.

Rather than being an indictment of student behavior, the current trend of student suspension and expulsion reflects a lack of responsibility on the part of the schools. It is far easier to remove a problematic student than it is to attempt to change their behavior, but such reform programs do have credible success rates.

Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group, has found that disciplinary programs based on a positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS) model can result in an 80-85 percent reduction in additional behavioral problems as well as higher student retention rates. Apparently, Texas schools prefer to leave student reform to others – mainly, the criminal justice system.

The policies of Texas schools have societal impacts that go far beyond just graduation rates. Dropouts face lower rates of employment and commit a higher percentage of crimes than those who graduate.

Ultimately, schools need to display more than the ability to hand out harsh punishments, and show a genuine commitment to student success.

They can start by implementing policies that favor correction and not eviction.

Marc Anderson is a third-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected].

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