While it’s difficult to prove causality—the suspended students may have had troubles later regardless of the discipline they received—the Texas study revealed that students who had been suspended or expelled were twice as likely to drop out of school compared with students with similar characteristics at similar schools who were not suspended or expelled.
In light of such grim statistics, many are working to stem the school-to-prison pipeline—and there’s no lack of ideas about how to do it. Strategies include those for parents (know your child’s rights at school), school administrators (train teachers and SROs so they understand a student’s needs if they have a disability or have experienced trauma), and state policymakers (eliminate or limit the length of suspensions).
Sara Baker, Legislative Policy Director at the ACLU of Missouri, says that the vague language states and schools use as grounds for punishment, such as “defiance,” is particularly harmful. Because such terms are open to broad interpretation, they often result in punishment for small offenses.
Amy Woolard of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center adds, “These are the kinds of violations where we see a great deal of disparities based on race and disability—one student’s coping mechanism of walking away to ‘cool down’ is another student’s ‘defiance’ charge.” Woolard’s center has been pushing for schools to describe prohibited conduct with specificity.
The Virginia Center and Missouri ACLU also call for local governments and school districts to direct resources into alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including “restorative practices.” This technique brings those involved in an incident—students, teachers, parents—together to discuss how the incident impacted the people involved, the school, and the community. The goal is for students to talk through their problems and make amends, instead of receiving detention, suspension, or worse.
Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, the superintendent of St. Louis’s University City district, is a proponent of restorative justice. In the 16 months she’s been on the job, she has hired a restorative practices coordinator and arranged training in the technique for students, counselors, and teachers. Hardin-Bartley notes that her schools still suspend students for violations such as drugs and weapons, but have started to use these practices for lesser offenses. “It’s a lot different than saying, ‘You did something wrong and now you’re out of school,’” she says.
Hardin-Bartley is also creating more relaxed environments in her schools. She’s encouraging classroom seating beyond the usual desks and chairs, such as bean bags and yoga balls, as well as setting aside quiet areas with soft furniture where students can decompress. Hardin-Bartley has also started yoga classes in some of her district’s elementary schools.