slides: The Worst Behaved Schools in MA
Friday, October 25, 2013
So, are Worcester public school students, and students in other districts with high suspension numbers, especially poorly behaved?
“It would seem very strange to suggest that there are certain districts where there are just bad kids,” said Jenny Chou, staff attorney at the Center for Law and Education.
The reality is, said Chou and other experts, that different school districts take different approaches to discipline and some are more punitive than others.
Who Tops the List?
The three largest school districts are among the top ten in terms of suspensions. Springfield leads the state in number of suspensions with 3,408 in the 2011-12 school year, and Boston ranks number 5 with 1,955 suspensions. Others school districts with high numbers of suspensions include Brockton, Lynn, Fall River, New Bedford, and Lowell.
“Worcester Public Schools, like many other urban systems, does have a high suspension rate and certainly attempts to strike a balance on safety and the needs of the students,” said John Monfredo, a member of the Worcester School Committee. “In a motion filed by me on the system’s suspension policy, administration is reviewing its current policy and seeing what changes, if any, need to be made.”
Despite high numbers of suspensions, the system of the Worcester public school does function a little differently from many others.
“We almost never suspend a student out of school,” said Brian O’Connell, vice chair of the Worcester School Committee, “but we move the student from the school where the infraction was committed to an alternative school, which is more structured.”
While students remain in an academic environment, their suspension is still counted in state data as an out of school suspension as it removes them from their initial school.
“The programs have an intense focus on students and the class size is smaller, which general education high school can’t provide,” said O’Connell. “It’s common that we would assign a suspension for a certain number of time, frequently for an entire academic year.”
O’Connell explained that the school district placed a real emphasis on keeping students in school, but practiced an informal zero tolerance policy in regards to weapons. The policy, he said, emerged in response to the 1989 murder of a student who was stabbed to death in the corridor of South High Community School.
“It was an effort to have a discipline policy that had real teeth to it,” he said.
The zero tolerance weapons policy has gotten Worcester into some trouble. In the 2009, precedent setting case LB vs. Connell, D. Mass, attorneys from the Center for Law and Education and Choate successfully sued the city on behalf of a student who was automatically expelled for possessing a knife in school. The student had taken the knife from a peer who was threatening to hurt another student. After the case was concluded in a federal district court, the student was allowed to return to school and Worcester was ordered to revise its policies and implement new training for school faculty and staff.
Too Many Suspensions
“In looking at some of the suspensions that have occurred in Worcester: cell phone use, failure to follow directions, forgery, leaving school without permission, cutting class, truancy, and verbal assault to others, the question is do they merit an out of school suspension or could these infractions have been handled differently,” said Monfredo.
Carlos Rojas Ålvarez, an education policy associate at Youth on Board, said harsh punishment for minor misbehavior is an unfortunate side effect of zero tolerance discipline policies.
“If you mess up in school, you don’t deserve a second chance,” Ålvarez said. “This caught on due to this perceived problem that students weren’t behaving well and weren’t receiving sufficient punishment, but the philosophy didn’t pan out the way they wanted it to.”
Instead, Ålvarez said, students were pushed out of school, fell behind, and eventually some dropped out of school altogether, seriously limiting their future options.
“It’s one thing for serious issues, but they’re affecting students for very minor things,” said Ålvarez. “We’ve heard of cases of kids suspended for wearing the wrong color socks.”
Harsh, Lifelong Consequences
“Students who are suspended, both in and out of school, are significantly more likely to drop out of school leaving them unprepared for even moderate-paying employment opportunities and more likely to become involved in crime,” said Melissa Weiner, assistant professor at the College of Holy Cross.
“So the irony is that these policies, rather than preventing crime, may produce more of it if students are suspended or expelled for non-criminal offenses,” she said. “And at the very least, they are hindering students from completing academic material and not constructively addressing problems students might be experiencing out of school that would lead them to engage in a behavior considered deviant. And even worse, they may be criminalizing children who really didn't do anything wrong. “
This phenomenon has become known as the School to Prison Pipeline, and though it typically refers to in-school arrests, suspensions are certainly considered a contributing factor.
“The School to Prison pipeline is a national trend and it’s a set of policies that are pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system,” said Fernando Martinez, a national field organizer at the Dignity In Schools Campaign. “Suspensions and references to law enforcement are contributing to the number of students ending up in the juvenile justice system.”
Once students are in the juvenile justice system, it is often difficult to get out, severely limiting future employment and education opportunities. What’s more, these policies are disproportionately affecting the United States’ most marginalized communities: youth of color, youth with disabilities, and youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (GLBTQ).
According to data collected by the federal Department of Education, black students are more than 3.5 more likely to receive an out of school suspension or expulsion for misbehavior identical to their white peers. One in ten black girls received an out of school suspension in the last school year, as did one in five black boys. While black and Hispanic students represented 45 percent of the national student body, they represented 56 percent of those expelled under harsh zero tolerance policies.
“Subjective interpretations of threat, with students being subject to suspension, expulsion, or arrest for exhibiting disrespect or defiance leaves many students cast out of the educational system, and potentially arrested and charged with a life-altering felony, for non-criminal offenses that even 10 years ago, would have been treated within the school and without such potentially detrimental consequences for the alleged perpetrator,” said Weiner.
“Furthermore, given that the majority of the teaching force is white, cultural misunderstandings might find a white teacher interpreting enthusiastic contributions to class discussion as deviant or disrespectful.,” she said. “These policies fail to address underlying problems among many children in urban areas: a lack of employment opportunities for themselves, poor quality schools, and poor quality city infrastructure including access to productive opportunities after school.”
Weiner noted that the unemployment rate among black and Latino youth is at an all time high, and that for adults unemployment is nearly double that of whites.
Solutions Not Suspensions
Several organizations, local, statewide, and national, have mobilized to combat the high numbers and lasting consequences of out-of-school suspensions. Many have been spearheaded by youth who have been directly affected by schools’ harsh zero tolerance policies.
“After years of work to change the school discipline laws of the state, the legislature agreed to do so and on July 31, 2012 it enacted what was then signed on Augest 6 by the Governor,” said Tom Mela, attorney at Mass Advocates for Children.
The new law, Chapter 222 of the Acts of 2012, requires all school districts to significantly increase data collection, making it far more comprehensive. It is estimated that current data underreport suspensions and are often moot as they lack demographic breakouts.
“For the first time the law will require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to analyze the data and to follow up with schools and school districts with high levels of suspensions,” Mela said.
In addition to increased data requirements and more accountability for schools with particularly high suspension rates, the law requires that all students suspended for more than ten days be provided alternative education. In Worcester, this means that a practice already implemented voluntarily became compulsory, but for many other districts this requirement meant major change.
“What Worcester will have to do that it doesn’t do,” said Mela, “is for kids who are excluded from school for less than ten consecutive days they will have to provide an educational support.”
“The rest of the law,” he said, “applies to all offenses except four – drugs, weapons, assault on an adult, and kids who are charged with a felony. The maximum time for which a student can be excluded will now be 90 school days, one year won’t continue beyond July 1, 2014. For all of those offenses school districts will have to exercise discretion, thereby ending the practice of zero tolerance. And most importantly, school exclusion will become a last resort. They have to try and use alternatives to exclusion and only if those don’t work can they exclude kids from school.”
A Road to Change
Some school districts, including Boston, have already begun working to comply with these new requirements.
“It inverts the paradigm, so instead of being weighed 90 percent on ways to punish students and 10 percent on what else you can do, it flips,” said Ålvarez. “The Boston Public Schools has been proactive in implementing ahead of time, and has decided to implement provisions of the law and more.”
The Boston school system has entirely rewritten its discipline policy, with the input of Ålvarez and his colleagues, and should be seen as a model for national reform, he said.
“Worcester does need to review its high suspension rate," said Monfredo, "[because] research continues to demonstrate that so-called zero tolerance policies and out of school suspensions and expulsions that are used too readily are ineffective deterrents to inappropriate behavior and are harmful and counterproductive to the student, the family, the school district and the community as a whole."
“Let’s not forget the human factor," Monfredo added. "Let’s encourage a caring relationship between students and teachers and have a mentor, tutor or a buddy to assist those students identified as at risk. In so many cases those suspended students have not been successful in school and due to low self-esteem and frustration have been turned off to school. Worcester will be making changes in how we view suspensions.”
Related Slideshow: MA School Districts With The Most Suspensions
Here are the 20 Massachusetts public school systems with the highest number of out of school suspensions, from lowest to highest. The data were collected by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary School Education, and refer to the 2011-12 school year. Data represent the number of total suspensions, not the number of individual students suspended. Dropout reates indicated the percentage of students, grades 9-12, who dropped out of school between July 1 and June 30 prior to the listed year and did not return before October 1. Both in school and out of school suspension rates indicate the percentage of students receiving one or more of the respective suspensions. All data are self reported by school districts.
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