Plugging the pipeline

Chase STEM Academy Principal Jack Hunter works with eighth-grader Demarko Craig.
Chase STEM Academy Principal Jack Hunter works with eighth-grader Demarko Craig.

School suspensions and expulsions often lead to students’ idleness, falling back, and dropping out. It’s no surprise that nearly 80 percent of prisoners list truancy as their first offense, the U.S. Department of Justice reports.

So-called zero tolerance polices, which became popular in the 1990s, have led to more police and security officers in schools. Without policy changes, including early and consistent intervention, school infractions such as disorderly conduct and fighting will lead to excessive time away from school, criminal records, and an insidious school-to-prison pipeline.

In Toledo and across the country, black students are three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled. To alleviate the problem, the U.S. Department of Education issued recommendations this year, such as dropping hyper-zealous school discipline policies and ensuring that teachers and other school personnel are trained to resolve conflicts and cool classroom disruptions.

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To their credit, school districts have become increasingly aware of the problem. They have adjusted discipline policies and practices that have disproportionately affected African-American students and other children of color. And they’re getting results.

The Blade reported this month that Toledo Public Schools, under its Positive Behavior Interventions and Support program, has reduced total suspensions and expulsions to about half of what they were in the 2009-10 school year.

One student, Demarko Craig, an eighth-grader at Chase STEM Academy, was suspended repeatedly last year, and finally expelled, for disruptive behavior and failure to follow directions. The school disciplined Demarko, but did not attempt to counsel him or intervene.

Reinforcing positive behavior in students and teaching appropriate actions are generally more effective than removing a student from the classroom. So this year, school personnel have talked to Demarko about his behavior.

As a result, he has not been suspended, or even referred for discipline. With a new approach to discipline, overall suspensions at Chase have dropped significantly this year — to 41 days from 260 days a year ago.

Repeated suspensions can lead to a student dropping out and perhaps going to jail. Now, Demarko and more of his classmates have a real shot at success. That’s in everyone’s best interest.

Starting last September, another new program in Toledo — Alternative to Suspension, involving Pickett Elementary School and the Frederick Douglass Community Association in the central city — also significantly reduced suspensions. The school refers students with behavior problems to the community center for supervised study.

Here and around the country, zero-tolerance policies have hindered the education and prospects of many students, especially those of children of color. New disciplinary policies that aim to resolve problems while keeping young people in school are changing that trend.

But it can’t change fast enough to save children with enormous potential to contribute to society from wasting it in the school-to-prison pipeline.