Wednesday, Apr 26, 2017
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Disciplining students

Fewer young people are causing trouble and getting suspended or expelled from Toledo's public schools. But statistics suggest that black students still are more likely to lose school days as punishment than their white classmates.

School discipline is a difficult subject. Some people advocate the tough-love approach of zero tolerance. Students who break the rules, they say, need to know their actions have consequences. Those who follow the rules have the right to expect a positive learning environment.

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Zero-tolerance also frees school administrators from having to exercise discretion in accounting for such things as mitigating factors, motive, family circumstances, and degrees of blame.

Other people prefer a holistic approach that addresses underlying causes of bad behavior, focuses on the needs of victims, offenders, and schools, and requires offenders to take responsibility for their actions and provide restitution for harm.

At TPS, suspension and expulsion generally are last resorts after intervention fails. But at times, removing a student is a first recourse dictated by policy.

Rarely, a breach is so serious that a student is arrested. But it happened last week, when 10 students at Scott High School were arrested after a fight broke out in a hallway. Four of the students were held in community detention, and all 10 face charges in juvenile court. They could be suspended or expelled from school.

Community leaders say arresting young people can make the problem worse. "If you take a wannabe gang member … and place them in a cell with a real gang member, what do you think is going to happen?" asked Robert Birt, minister of Glass City Church of Christ.

TPS says 2,573 students -- about one of every nine in the district -- were collectively suspended 4,460 times for a total of 12,593 days during the fall semester. On average, the suspended students lost almost a week of school.

Eighty-nine students were expelled for longer periods. They lost 2,121 days -- nearly five weeks apiece.

Is it any wonder so many students fall behind, drop out, and don't graduate? Too many end up in trouble with the law, in prison, or dead.

African-American students make up about 43 percent of the district's enrollment. But they account for almost 70 percent of expulsions, 69 percent of suspensions, and more than 64 percent of disciplinary interventions.

Socioeconomic factors play a part. They include poverty, crime, broken or abusive families, drugs, alcohol, and a multigenerational lack of economic or educational attainment.

Groups such as Toledoans United for Social Action say there are differences in the way students are punished. Subtle, unconscious expectations and prejudices can influence the ways that teachers and administrators respond to infractions, they say.

Schools exist to break, not reflect, negative patterns, Toledo Schools Superintendent Jerome Pecko says. "We've been doing training on [cultural sensitivity]," he said, "and we need to ratchet that up."

It's also important to lead by example, he adds. "Most of us, I believe, are beyond color," he told The Blade. "When I'm with students, I see people, I see potential, and that's where my focus is."

Mr. Pecko says TPS is working with TUSA, Advocates for Basic Legal Equity, and other groups to develop strategies to keep students in school -- and out of the criminal justice system -- while maintaining a positive and safe learning environment for every student.

"Any time we suspend a child or youth, we're all losers," Mr. Pecko says. "We are very diligently engaged in trying to come up with a better way."

That effort needs to continue.

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