South Carolina Needs to Shut Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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In response to Richland School District Two parents’ concerns of exclusionary school discipline practices they see happening primarily to students of color, SC Appleseed’s education attorney, Amanda Adler, speaks up in The State Newspaper:

The State | April 4, 2014: A recent news article in this paper documented the concerns of parents in a Midlands district about exclusionary school discipline that they see happening primarily to students of color. The group cites significant numbers of African-American males being suspended, placed in alternative settings, or expelled. Data confirms that they are right to be worried, and that unfortunately this issue is not limited to Columbia.

In the 2009-2010 school year, more than over 103,000 suspensions were doled out to students in South Carolina. 3,900 students were expelled from school.

Not only are our suspension rates some of the highest in the nation, but they are also racially disproportionate. Statewide, parents and community members are seeing their children facing suspensions, expulsion, and even criminal charges stemming from their behavior at school. Across the country, parents, educators, community groups and others concerned about young people have begun to push back against the growing trend for schools to use severe and punitive discipline in response to non-violent student misbehavior.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system does not always start with overtly discriminatory behavior. Rather, it is often the compilation of what some would see as small omissions, “mere” oversights, resulting in the failure of our most at risk students. A parent goes uncalled. A sleeping student goes unawakened. The opportunity to offer supportive services such as mentoring or counseling is ignored. A student misbehaving is summarily suspended or expelled. Zero tolerance. No excuses.

Not surprisingly, studies show that the outcomes for these students are dismal. Students are more likely to drop out when schools do not properly address their needs, leaving them to feel school is not a place where they belong. Others are forced out by harsh discipline. Statistics confirm these are the very students whose future will likely include poverty and contact with the criminal justice system. Once suspended, students are four times more likely to drop out of school. Young people who drop out of high school are eight times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate, eliminating virtually any chance of contributing to the local community and economy. Out-of-school, out-of-work youths collectively cost Americans some $1.6 trillion in increased social services and lost earnings and taxes over the course of their lifetimes.

This week, every South Carolina legislator and public school district superintendent received a copy of SC Appleseed’s newest report, Effective Discipline for Student Success: Reducing Student and Teacher Dropout Rates in South Carolina. In it, we make a number of research-based recommendations about tools that educators can use to improve school climates, disciplinary rates, and ultimately boost students’ academic performance. Furthermore, SC Appleseed is working with parents and citizens around the state to call for common sense changes to policies and practices around student discipline. Educators must have additional options and support for meeting the needs of our most challenging and educationally vulnerable students.

Two decades of research confirms that out-of-school punishments like suspension and expulsion do not work for low-level offenses. They do not improve student behavior and can exacerbate the problem. Many children who are suspended and expelled come from homes with the least supervision and have themselves experienced violence or other trauma that they are struggling to address without support. Left with few other options, educators fall back on exclusionary discipline. Fortunately, there is a solution. By implementing research-based practices such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Restorative Justice, and making a universal commitment to keep students in the classroom, learning, every day, we can reach these students.

There are pressures on public schools like never before, but our public schools are the very place where students at risk most need to be. Public schools must be accountable for every student, not just those who are easy to teach. Wasting time and resources by relying on outdated discipline methods does not make sense. South Carolina’s schools need better ways to deal with student discipline. Our children’s academic and personal growth—as well as the economic future of South Carolina—depends on it.

Amanda Adler
The State Newspaper, April 4, 2014

If you are interested in learning more about SC Appleseed’s work in education and would like to get involved, visit our Education Policy page.

Amanda Adler is a staff attorney working on education issues at South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. She is a former educator who has taught in public schools in South Carolina and Georgia.