Here are two unsettling statistics on school discipline, based on an unprecedented study of nearly 1 million Texas secondary school students: Nearly 60 percent of these children were suspended or expelled over the course of the six-year study, and African-American students were disproportionately disciplined for infractions that the researchers described as “discretionary” – that is, the school had the option of not suspending or expelling the student but chose the harsher path.
As it turns out, it’s not as much the behavior of the students that leads to vastly different kinds of discipline, says the study by The Council of State Government’s Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute. It’s the policies of school leaders.
“The bottom line is that schools can get different outcomes with very similar student bodies,” Michael D. Thompson, a co-author of the report, told the Washington Post. “School superintendents and teachers can have a dramatic impact.”
To that list we should also add school board members, who hire the superintendent and, through their policy-making decisions, have significant authority over the way schools handle discipline.
The day after that report was made public, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder issued a new Supportive School Discipline Initiative that aims to dismantle the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” that pushes students into the juvenile justice system for school infractions that could be handled in other ways.
Citing the Texas report and the high number of suspensions and expulsions it found, Holder said, “I think these numbers are kind of a wake-up call. It’s obvious we can do better.”
In yet another critical look at school discipline, journalist Annette Fuentes, in her new book, Lockdown High, examines the heightened national concern about school safety – and its negative consequences – since 9/11 and Columbine.
“The Columbine scenario is terrifying, but the odds of it occurring in your hometown are about one in two million,” Fuentes told the Post.
In a later interview, she makes another point that is well known to most school board members: School is among the safest places for children and young people to be.
So how about those ultra-safe playgrounds, with nothing too high or too hard, too fast or too rickety? Not good for kids, says Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University of Norway. Yes, they may prevent a few physical injuries (and even that is open to debate) but the psychological toll – in children becoming more fearful because they’re not given the chance to adequately explore their world — outweighs the benefits, she says in a New York Times article.
So too safe is bad – psychologically. What about too extravagant, for example, the $248,000 playhouse a former CEO built for his grandchildren? Not a great idea, notes the Post’s Ruth Marcus. Could make for overly indulged, uncreative kids. Imagine that?
At least that’s one problem cashed-strapped school districts don’t have to worry about.