The Huffington Post, June 27, 2012
By Jane Ellen Stevens
Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment.
First. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids — 3,328,750, to be exact. Since the 1970s, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, the suspension rate’s nearly doubled for white kids, to nearly 6 percent. It’s more than doubled for Hispanics to 7 percent, and to a stunning 15 percent for blacks. For Native Americans, it’s almost tripled, from 3 percent to 8 percent.
Second. If you think all these suspensions are for weapons and drugs, recalibrate. There’s been a kind of “zero-tolerance creep” since schools adopted “zero-tolerance” policies. Only 5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs, said the NEPC report, citing a 2006 study. The other 95 percent were categorized as “disruptive behavior” and “other”, which includes violation of dress code, being “defiant” and, in at least one case, farting.
Third. They don’t work for the kids who get kicked out. In fact, these “throw-away” kids get shunted off a track to college or vocational school and onto the dead-end spur of juvenile hall and prison. One suspension triples the likelihood of a child becoming involved with the juvenile justice system, and doubles the likelihood of a child repeating a grade. And those suspensions begin early.
In Pierce County, Washington, a study of nearly 2,000 children who were on probation, 85 percent were suspended before they reached high school. A heartbreaking one-third of these students experienced their first suspension between 5 years old and 9 years old.
When you hear information like that, you’ve got to consider that it’s not the kids who are failing the system — the system is failing the kids.
That’s what Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, had been thinking for years. Now he had empirical evidence — the CDC’s ACE Study, the neurobiological research that definitely showed that traumatized kids cannot learn when they are over-stressed, and Helping Traumatized Children Learn, the book that Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) at Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, co-authored.
With all that in hand, he said, metaphorically, “Enough already.” What he really said was: “I saw the data as providing us with powerful support for change.”
He called a community-wide meeting. Each of the district’s 23 schools sent a four-member team. Representatives from the district attorney’s office showed up. So did local police (in a learning capacity), as well as the departments of children and families, youth services, and mental health. Local counseling agencies sent folks. They spent a whole day working with TLPI and talking about trauma and learning.
The response has been nothing short of amazing: an entire community figuring out ways to turn the system from a blame-shame-punishment approach to one of taking care of kids so that they can learn.
• Many of the district’s 23 schools have adopted trauma-informed improvement plans. Suspensions and expulsions have plummeted. Arnone Elementary, for example, which has 826 students from kindergarten through 5th grade, 86 percent of which are minorities, has seen a 40 percent drop in suspensions.
• Three hundred of the district’s 1400 teachers have taken a course about teaching traumatized children that TLPI developed with the district and educators at Lesley University.
• The attention to child trauma doesn’t stop at the schoolyard fence. Local police alert school personnel of any arrest or visit to an address. Counselors identify children who live at that address so that, “at the very least, the school is aware that a second or third-grader is carrying something around that is a big deal,” says Terrasi.