Christine Rodriguez vividly recalls her early school years. A native of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, a working-class predominantly black and Latino section of New York City, her most vivid memories of elementary school consist of crammed classrooms with inadequate books, insufficient chairs, and the constant presence of the school-safety agent. (School Safety Agents, or SSAs, are New York Police Department officers assigned to K-12 campuses and charged with protecting students, campus staff, and visitors.) Now a college freshman at The New School studying education, Rodriguez rattles off with ease how school discipline shaped her K-12 education.
“We go to schools where there are more SSAs than guidance counselors. For us, it makes us feel that they expect us to end up in jail rather than in college,” said Rodriguez, 17. “I’ve been to public school my whole life. I’ve experienced the school-to-prison pipeline”—a term commonly used to describe the trend in which largely disadvantaged students are funneled into the criminal-justice system—“and criminalization (of students). And I’ve questioned why all of these things happen to our communities.”
Policymakers and educators, among others, are beginning to question the harsh discipline policies and practices that have in recent decades became popular in certain districts, too. Research shows that the reliance on punitive school discipline like suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests—“school pushout”—deprives students of learning time and takes the greatest toll on nonwhite students, students with disabilities, LGBT youth and other vulnerable student groups. Suspensions can even harm the education of non-misbehaving students, according to some research.