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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Fix School Discipline to Fix Inequity

By Peggy Lehner — May 31, 2017 2 min read
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The difference between equity and equality is something that more states are paying attention to when making decisions about school funding. But equity should not be limited to funding alone. While school funders at state and local levels need to attend to the additional cost of educating at-risk children, it is often not a lack of money that puts a child living in poverty at risk. Instead, it is the factors that so often accompany poverty—including the use of drugs, exposure to violence, sustained hunger, and parental stress—that make our state’s low-income children especially vulnerable.

Fix School Discipline to Fix Inequity: Before tackling bigger K-12 challenges, states must address unfair suspension rates, writes Peggy Lehner, a Republican state senator from Ohio.

Merely providing additional money for these children will not sufficiently address the inequities they face in the classroom. The bottom line for solving inequity comes down to the actions of adults in the classroom and the schoolhouse. Classroom teachers need to have a working understanding of the signs of emotional trauma in their students, along with the tools to help children cope.

Evidence that too many of our teachers are not adequately prepared for this challenge can be found in the frighteningly high rates of suspension and expulsion among the impoverished children in my state of Ohio. According to our analysis of Ohio Department of Education data, in the 2015-16 school year, an estimated 36,000 suspensions and 200 expulsions were handed out to the state’s public elementary-school children under the age of 8. Of these, more than 17,000 out-of-school suspensions and 160 expulsions in preschool through 3rd grade were related to disobedient or disruptive behavior. What’s more, 88 percent of those children who were suspended were economically disadvantaged, and 76 percent were minority students.

Ensuring equity means treating children according to their needs, not merely treating all children equally. Behaviors that might be unacceptable in one child can be a thinly veiled cry for help in another. Teachers should not deal with misbehavior by doling out a standard punishment.

Our schools of education need to do a better job instructing preservice teachers about social-emotional learning, cultural diversity, trauma-informed instruction, and strategies for de-escalating poor behavior. High-quality professional development around these topics for longtime educators is critical. These tactics will help teachers work with administrators and policymakers to create a school culture that not only lays out expected behavior in clear terms, but also provides its students with the emotional supports they need to be successful, such as mental-health services and positive behavioral intervention.

I am working with educators in Ohio on drafting future legislation to ban suspensions and expulsions statewide for children age 8 and under, except if students threaten to harm themselves or their classmates. It is my hope that this reduction in suspensions promotes more affirming and constructive methods of discipline and keeps more students—who need our help, not our punishment—in the classroom.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Money Doesn’t Ensure Equity

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