Opponents of zero-tolerance school discipline are urging Congress to use education funding to pressure states to reduce suspensions and referrals of students to juvenile-justice systems.
The advocates see an opportunity to advance their concerns because Congress is currently debating reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. The act was last reauthorized in 2001 under the name No Child Left Behind. That controversial legislation, which expired in 2007, tied funding for qualifying schools to mandatory student testing. Divided lawmakers haven’t been able to come up with a replacement for the act but congressional leaders say this is now a priority.
On Thursday, a Capitol Hill roundtable featured Democratic lawmakers backing discipline-related measures they hope their colleagues will agree to include in proposals now pending in the Republican-led House and Senate.
The roundtable was sponsored by Dignity in Schools, a national network of parents and civil rights groups concerned with so-called school push out -- when children are removed from school to punish them for disruptive conduct. The network is waging campaigns in 24 states to urge school districts and states to use counseling, mediation and conflict resolution methods—rather than suspending kids from classrooms or calling police in to deal with relatively minor conflicts.
“Public school discipline practices are pushing children out of school,” said Janel George, senior education policy counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which co-sponsored the event. “You cannot learn and you cannot achieve if you’re not in a classroom.”
Edilberto Flores, 19, of the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition, said he was first suspended from school in fourth grade for carrying a lighter. He said he had a chaotic home life where he was exposed to guns in his house, cocaine dealing and beatings of family members.
“I was only a little kid,” he said. At school, he said, “they never asked me why I carried a lighter with me. They never asked me what was going on with me... They didn’t know what was going with me at home.”
Flores said he was repeatedly suspended and finally expelled from high school. He did time in juvenile detention for assault—where a mentor connected with him and helped him eventually graduate from a different high school after he was released from jail.
After the roundtable, students, parents and others affiliated with Dignity in Schools visited lawmakers’ offices at the Capitol to lobby them to embrace discipline-related proposals authored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
At the roundtable Scott said lagging achievement for minority students is directly linked to suspensions, which are disproportionately imposed on students of color.
“All the bad things start happening when you drop out of school,” Scott said, “and school suspensions are the first step to dropping out. It’s also a major step in what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline. Once you’re on that trajectory, that’s where you’re headed.”
Scott has been urging schools to embrace discipline reforms for some time now in Virginia.