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VA school discipline is 'widespread, discriminatory,' study says

Virginia disproportionately suspends African-American boys and those with disabilities for issues that are often minor, frequently entangling children in the law enforcement system.  

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    Seventh grader Jayden Witter, foreground, discusses a recent conflict with another student solved through restorative justice, which included teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, at Ed White Middle School, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in San Antonio. A new study recommends restorative justice practices to reform Virginia schools' discipline policies, which disproportionately impact black and disabled students.
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Virginia, the state that leads the nation in the school-to-prison pipeline, also disproportionately suspends African-American male students and those with disabilities from school for issues as minor as a sarcastic tone, a cell phone, or too many unexcused absences.

"Suspended Progress," a report released today by the Legal Aid Justice Center, says that the fix would be for school administrators to shift away from so-called zero tolerance policies, which often mandate punishment for even slight infractions, in favor of working with families and installing more preventive and supportive discipline. 

"Too often, so-called 'zero-tolerance' policies – however well-intentioned – make students feel unwelcome in their own schools," Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2014, at the Maryland launch of a new school discipline initiative. "They disrupt the learning process. And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems."

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Having repeated suspensions and expulsions has been linked to increased drop-out rates and prison rates, as well as other social issues, findings that are now powering momentum to change school discipline and break what's known as the "school to prison pipeline." 

Virginia's "pipeline" is among the worst, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which analyzed schools' law enforcement-referral rates in 2015. The state's students were referred to law enforcement at a rate of almost 16 per 1,000, the study found, compared to 6 per 1,000 nationwide. Across the country, black and special-needs kids tend to be referred more than others. 

In total, Virginia public schools issued 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 individual students, according to Thursday's report, compiled by the JustChildren (JC) program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond. Those suspensions and expulsions were given to black boys and children with disabilities at a disproportionately high rate, the authors report. 

The vast majority of suspensions were issued for non-violent misbehavior. About half of the suspensions were handed out for cell phone use, disruption, defiance, insubordination, and disrespect, while another 670 suspensions were issued for attendance.

"It makes absolutely no sense that students were sent home from school for skipping class or not coming to school," Jeree Michele Thomas, an attorney for JustChildren, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview. "I'm hearing horror stories every day here."

Virginia schools also issued over 27,147 out-of-school suspensions – over one-fifth of all suspensions – to students in prekindergarten through fifth grade.

Over 20% of all suspensions were issued to elementary school students, including 16,000 suspensions to students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.

The suspensions were disproportionately issued to male students, African American students, and students with disabilities. For example, 12.4% of African American students were short-term suspended at least once (for 10 school days or fewer), compared to 3.4% of white students; and 10.9% of students with disabilities were short-term suspended at least once, compared to 4.6% of students without disabilities. (Schools may also impose long-term suspension, for up to 364 calendar days, or expel them for a year at a time.) 

"Right now, based on what I am seeing in this report, I am looking at filing a civil rights complaint against the city of Richmond. This is the state capitol and that should carry some weight. It's a major problem," Lynetta Thompson, the president of the city's NAACP branch, says in a phone interview. "It's laying out the route for the school-to-prison pipeline. Here in Richmond our schools are defunded, but we're getting ready to build a new juvenile prison in Chesapeake allocating $41 million."

Fixing the problem will require "transformational change at all levels – from the classroom to the courtroom, and from the school board to the General Assembly," study co-author Angela Ciolfi, the JC's legal director, writes in an email to the Monitor. "It remains to be seen whether Virginia is really ready to abandon its failed zero tolerance model and invest the resources and leadership it will take to support teachers and other building level personnel in their efforts to connect with students and keep them in classrooms and out of the courts." 

Advocates hope that those changes can reach children like Lakeisha Perry's four sons, who have all struggled through Churchland High School in Portsmouth, Virginia, she says. Ms. Perry, who is black, believes zero tolerance policies helped generate multiple suspensions for her sons. Two eventually graduated, while one dropped out. Her youngest, age 17, has been suspended, briefly expelled, and is now struggling academically and emotionally.

Her youngest son's first suspension was for "inappropriate language," she says. He was kept home for ten days. 

"The school should have just contacted me the very first time and we would have sat down and talked about it and the issue could have been resolved," she says. Instead, it escalated to stress, anxiety, more suspensions, a stint in an alternative school, expulsion, and now reinstatement.

In Virginia, students do not have a right to alternative education during suspensions or expulsions, meaning they fall further behind with each day of punishment. 

"Now we have to constantly motivate and push him to want to even go to school," Perry says. "He's like 'Forget it. I'll just get my GED.'"

At least 25 school divisions suspended between 25% and 40% of their African American male students with disabilities, according to the report. One of them, five years old at the time, was represented by Ms. Thomas. 

The boy received "more than 20 days of out-of-school suspension for anxiety," she says. "He had a disability. He would get anxious and hide under his desk and the solution was suspension."

Ultimately, through legal intervention, the school developed a system of intervention methods to help him feel welcomed and at ease in class.

In 2015, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced Classrooms not Courtrooms, a push to reduce law enforcement referalls, suspensions, and expulsions, and take a hard look at their long-term impact, particularly on black and disabled students. 

It was an important first step, students' advocates say, but not enough. 

"This problem is not new," says Thompson. Reform is being "introduced, but it's not being implemented." 

That's the catch, some education experts say: to some degree, teachers and administrators know what works. But it takes commitment to overhaul the way that schools handle the challenges, or sometimes dangers, of a misbehaving student. The report recommends that educators focus on teacher reflection and teacher-student relationships, social and emotional learning, and appropriate systems to assess and respond to specific situations.

They also point to so-called restorative practices, meant to involve students, parents, and teachers together to determine what harm has been done and how to best right the wrong and heal everyone involved. 

Restorative justice entails "non-punitive disciplinary responses that focus on repairing harm done to relationships and people, developing solutions by engaging all persons affected by a harm, and accountability," according to the US Education Department. 

Suspension and expulsion should be limited to "a last resort," according to the Department's "Guiding Principles" for school discipline.

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