Classroom as Hostile Territory: Stopping School “Push Out”

By Michelle Chen Dec 05, 2009

Schools are supposed to offer children in struggling communities a pathway to better prospects, but they’re increasingly becoming instruments of exclusion. A coalition civil rights and community groups has launched a national campaign against school "push out." It’s a different spin on the dropout epidemic: activists are calling attention to harsh, discriminatory institutional policies that marginalize and exclude students from the education system. Various issues lead to children getting pushed out, but a common factor is a disciplinary approach that criminalizes kids for being, well, kids. It’s hard to focus on learning when rampant suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and police presence make school grounds feel like a combat zone. The so-called school-to-prison pipeline, which substitutes the criminal justice system for educators and supportive peers, draws poor children of color onto a bleak trajectory from the moment they set foot in the classroom. Those who escape the grip of law enforcement, by the way, remain warehoused in impoverished schools where failure is virtually written into the curriculum. According to the Dignity in Schools campaign, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies foster a climate of violence that is hostile not only to education but to children’s basic rights:

  • Schools are suspending and expelling students at a rate more than double that of 1974. In 2006, more than 3.3 million students were suspended out-of-school at least once and 102,000 were expelled.
  • Students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their peers for the same behavior. — In [Office of Civil Rights’] 2006 data collection for the 2005-2006 school year, African-American students were nearly three times as likely to be suspended and 3.5 times as likely to be expelled than their white peers. — Students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at a rate roughly twice that of their non-disabled peers.
  • The majority of suspensions are for minor misbehavior, including “disruptive behavior,” “insubordination,” or school fights, which can be interpreted in subjective and biased ways (even unintentional).
  • When schools are so quick to write kids off as deviants, the shut-out becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    In its 2006 review of exclusionary and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the American Psychological Association found no evidence that the use of suspension, expulsion, or zero- tolerance policies has resulted in improvements in student behavior or increases in school safety. They found that suspensions and expulsions are linked to an increased likelihood of future behavior problems, academic difficulty, detachment and dropout…. Economists estimate that raising high school graduation rates would decrease violent crime by 20% and property crime by 10%. The same economists find that each additional high school graduate would yield an average of $36,500 in lifetime cost savings to the public.

    Providing young people–particularly youth growing up in impoverished, segregated communities–with an effective and just education is obviously a good social investment, but policymakers seem to forget that it’s the backbone of a democratic society, too. It’s more politically palatable to treat children as the cause of the very social problems that education is supposed to relieve. While the zero-tolerance attitude tends to breed crisis, the Dignity in Schools coalition is pushing a human rights framework in education. Taking a more holistic approach to discipline, violence and behavioral health, this paradigm envisions schools as communities that foster both intellectual and social development. This approach also requires equitable distribution of educational funding and services across communities, as well as the engagement of families and community members in shaping school policy. The campaign encourages educators to use new federal grant resources to help schools cope with violence and high dropout rates. The Obama admnistration’s Race to the Top program, designed to spur innovation in public schools, has been criticized by some education activists for potentially fostering corporate-style, test-heavy educational models. But progressive educators could draw down those resources to promote intervention strategies and support services that respect and restore disenfranchised youth. It’s not rocket science: the basic idea is that even in the toughest neighborhoods, where young people face closed doors at every turn, school should be the one place where a kid feels welcome.