Treating All Children Like Human Beings
Bryce Wilson Stucki has an interesting piece called Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Rethinking ‘Zero Tolerance’ discussing recent efforts to challenge so called “zero tolerance” policies in public schools. Such policies, which grew out of the Drug War and political efforts to get “tough on crime,” have ended up pushing many youths out of school and into the “school to prison pipeline.” She notes that some places have been moving in a different direction, attempting to enact a less punitive approach to discipline, in particular the adoption of restorative justice. One example is the Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School (KCAPA) in Philadelphia, “where about 90 percent of students are Latino or black and 100 percent are below the poverty line”.
The cornerstone of KCAPA’s program is the “restorative circle.” Drawing inspiration from the American Indian practice of the talking circle, in which a totem is passed around to signal the opportunity to speak, these meetings are convened for all kinds of reasons, from gauging students’ moods to addressing acts of serious misbehavior like assault or vandalism. In those more serious cases, all affected members of the community—parents and teachers, police officers, kids from other schools, as well as the perpetrator and victim—are invited to attend. One at a time, without interruption, each participant talks about how the offense has affected him or her. Then the group comes up with a plan to repair the damage. It may sound hokey or mundane, but the results are often striking.
I do have one problem with the framing of this issue. Restorative justice is a way to address a problem once there is a victim. But what’s even more important is how students are treated on a routine basis and how schools respond to problems before there is a victim. And zero tolerance policies often address ‘violations’ for which there is no victim. Indeed, that’s a big part of the problem–black and Latino students are often suspended for subjective offenses like ‘defiance,’ while white students for more serious offenses. There are two interrelated problems here–overly punitive policies and discriminatory ones. It is inevitable in an unequal society that whenever policies are overly harsh they won’t be applied equally.
One other thing to note about the school to prison pipeline: this is an area where lots of different actors can bring about change. Teachers, principles, administrators, legislators can all address the school to prison pipeline and harsh, discriminatory punishment. Teachers can address it in their own schools and their own classrooms. It also can build solidarity with parents and students and challenge punishment as governance strategy that underlies much of ‘ed reform’. But to do that, white teachers in particular need to seriously confront their own biases and commit to learning how to better serve students of color. Appropriate and well funded professional development is key too, unfortunately, as Wilson Stucki notes:
But in states like Pennsylvania, budget cuts have endangered districts’ ability to dedicate and train staff in new approaches to discipline. Thirty-four states will spend less this year on education than they did before the recession. The School District of Philadelphia lost $300 million for the 2013–2014 year and had to close 23 schools and fire almost 4,000 staff members, including all its assistant principals, more than 250 counselors, and more than 600 teachers. The district’s projected shortfall is estimated to rise to $320 million next school year.
Restorative-justice programs don’t cost a lot to implement—two-year training for faculty runs between $50,000 and $60,000—but they do require schools to have sufficient staff. The support staff on which the programs rely—counselors, assistant principals, restorative-justice coordinators—are often the first to go when budget cuts hit.
This isn’t just about ed reform. It’s embedded in existing, longstanding inequalities, which corporate ed reform did not create, but often does exacerbate. As Mariame Kaba and Erica R. Meiners explained:
While the US public education system has historically diverted non-white communities toward under-education, non-living wage work, participation in a permanent war economy, and/or incarceration, the development of the world’s largest prison nation over the last three decades has strengthened policy, practice, and ideological linkages between schools and prisons. Non-white, non-heterosexual, and/or non-gender conforming students are targeted for surveillance, suspended and expelled at higher rates, and are much more likely to be charged, convicted, and removed from their homes, or otherwise to receive longer sentences.
The problem of discriminatory and harsh discipline is about the intersection of class and race. There is a lot of attention on school closures, but suspensions also deny students access to schools. If we take educating everyone, and educating equally seriously, we have to start treating all children like human beings, not dangerous threats.