ESSA includes provisions that could help dismantle one of the most discriminatory and insidious, yet often overlooked, phenomena in our nation’s public education system: school pushout. The term refers broadly to disciplinary policies, practices, conditions, and mindsets that result in students being targeted and excluded from the general classroom—and often steered toward the juvenile justice system. These practices include exclusionary disciplinary actions, including suspensions, expulsions, and arrests—most frequently for minor subjective offenses, such as “disrespect.”
Bias—both explicit and implicit—come into play in discretionary discipline decisions, resulting in disparities along racial and other lines. Students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students are disproportionately targeted for school pushout. Students, schools, and districts all suffer the consequences of school pushout, including higher dropout rates, poor student performance, and hostile and tense school climates. Students cannot learn if they are not in school.
We cannot close achievement gaps or improve performance unless we recognize and eliminate the discriminatory practices that fuel school pushout and the school-to-prison pipeline. It will be incumbent upon states and schools to work with advocates and parents to end school pushout. States that are committed to educational success should know about the school climate and discipline reform options offered in the Every Student Succeeds Act. This is why the work of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, of which my organization is a federal partner, is critical. This coalition of 100 parent, student, education, civil rights, LGBTQ, and advocacy organizations from 25 states is committed to reforming discipline practices.
The law includes school climate and safety as one of five factors that states can choose from to measure school quality or student success. Under the law, discipline data will be collected—in state and local reports cards—including information on school climate measures, like rates of suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, and efforts to reduce the overuse of exclusionary discipline. This information will help to identify discipline disparities and develop and target interventions.
Funding for a wide range of alternatives to overly punitive practices is also included in the law, such as school-based mental health services, restorative practices, schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports, programming to prevent bullying and harassment, ongoing professional development training on classroom management, and trauma-informed services. The law recognizes that parent and family engagement is essential by including funding for engagement programs and encouraging schools to identify barriers to family engagement.
But, these programs and services mean little if states and schools fail to implement them. States must recognize that they cannot meaningfully improve on any other measure of success unless all students are able to learn in safe, engaging, and positive classrooms. No student can succeed if he or she is unfairly targeted, harassed, or pushed out of school. If states and schools are serious about student success, then they will act to use the law’s resources to improve school climate and discipline and end school pushout.
Janel George currently serves as Senior Education Policy Counsel in the Washington offices of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the civil rights organization founded by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
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