After a Summer of Tragedy, Keeping the Classroom Meaningful
September 06, 2016 05:11 pm
As students return to their classrooms, there are certain conversations schools must be prepared to have. In the wake of this summer’s tragedies in Baton Rouge, Dallas, and suburban St. Paul and growing racial tensions across the United States, the landscape of both civil rights and education have been altered permanently. In response, schools and communities must find a way to keep the classroom meaningful and relevant to the students who watched these injustices unfold firsthand or across the national media.
Addressing these tragedies with students calls for confronting certain truths in the larger society, a society that sometimes seems more committed to constraining potential talent than fostering it. During the past three decades, state and local investments in prisons and jails have grown three times as fast as investments in preK–12 education, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If society communicates its priorities and values through investments, then the commitment to students drastically is overshadowed by another social force: incarceration. Failing to invest in the nation’s schools, and the nation’s neediest students, perpetuates a cycle that funnels students out of classrooms and into jail cells.
Roughly two-thirds of the incarcerated population has not completed high school. Moreover, severe school discipline practices that emphasize in-school arrests, the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, and an increasingly punitive school climate reinforce this school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for students of color.
African American students are nearly four times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions and nearly two times more likely to be expelled from school without educational services as white students, according to ED’s Office for Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). Schools also suspend American Indian/Alaska Native, Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and multiracial boys at disproportionate rates.
Such disparities in school discipline have profound impacts on educational outcomes. For instance, a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education (Alliance) shows that a single ninth-grade suspension doubles the risk that a student will drop out of high school. More importantly, many of the same students who are disproportionately removed from school because of discipline issues also attend schools that are less likely to provide the advanced course work necessary to prepare them for college and a career. Among high schools where three-quarters or more of students are African American and Latino, only 48 percent offer physics, compared to 67 percent of high schools where fewer than one-quarter of students are of color, according to the CRDC. Similar disparities exist for Algebra II, calculus, and chemistry. African American and Latino students are underrepresented in gifted and talented education programs and Advanced Placement courses as well.
The nation cannot afford to neglect the educational needs of these traditionally underserved students, who now represent the majority of the school population. Yet, schools that serve predominantly students of color and those from low-income families often receive the fewest educational resources.
During the past decade, though, spending has increased in nearly every aspect of school security as thousands of districts have amped up their use of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and the presence of school resource officers (SROs) to make schools safer, according to a 2015 report from ED.
Having governed in an earlier era of mass school shootings, I realized that students and teachers must first feel safe before real learning can occur. The intentions behind these security measures are well-meaning and undoubtedly demonstrate a willingness to invest in the physical protection of students. However, schools must balance this physical security with the type of climate that makes students feel safe and trusted. School leaders constantly must seek the proper balance to ensure that the presence of such security measures does not work against efforts to create a positive school climate and environment conducive to learning. Education and community leaders must recognize that measures focusing solely on the proximate causes of school violence do not address the problem at its root.
SROs may screen for weapons and discourage fights, but they may not address the social and emotional influences or concerns about safety and protection that inspired the acts to take place. In conjunction with physical security measures, students need access to mental healthcare, restorative justice policies, and trauma-informed practices that support the whole child.
As the new school year commences, teachers, school leaders, parents, and community members must address the heartbreak inflicted during the summer, and examine the racial disparities in education, discipline, and incarceration that discourage students in the classroom. To support these conversations, the Alliance will post a series of blogs about trauma, school safety, discipline, and learning conditions in the coming weeks, designed to empower parents and others to advocate for changes in their schools that support equity and a positive school climate.
Investing in students’ potential is the best way to create learning environments that foster better student outcomes. This goes hand-in-hand with the need to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and any policies that treat children less like students and more like criminals.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.