School discipline has become something of a hot topic lately. Organizations like the ACLU have called attention to what it calls the School to Prison Pipeline. They call into question the use of police tactics to deal with classroom disruptions. And they question why these tactics are mostly used with minority students.
But according to New York Times author KJ Dell’Antonia, most teachers “are winging it” when it comes to misbehaving students. In fact, they may not have even received training on it in college.
Police in School Discipline
So what are teachers and principals to do when students are “out of control” or “disrespecting the community”? Across the country, more and more schools have handed over their discipline to police. According to the US Department of Education and the Center for Public Integrity, nationwide, 5.8 of every 1,000 students had been referred to police and the courts for school discipline issues. Here in Michigan, that number is a little lower: 4.4 of every 1,000 students.
But when race or disability come into the picture, those numbers skyrocket. Nationwide, black students are referred nearly twice as often (9.8 of every 1000). Over 1 in 100 disabled students will deal with police during their education. The Department of Education has also shown that even when police aren’t involved, minority students and disabled students face stricter penalties, all the way down to preschool.
Criminalizing School Discipline
The effect of all these referrals is many more students with juvenile records. If a principal or superintendent deals with a misbehaving student, that student may face suspension, or even expulsion. But their criminal record remains clean. When the police get involved, suddenly every offense is a crime. According to Dell’Antonia:
In schools where discipline is dependent on law enforcement, kissing a fellow student who does not want to be kissed becomes sexual abuse. Stealing a teacher’s mobile phone turns into a felony theft charge. Swearing at a school police officer becomes obstruction of justice.
Depending on the age of the students, these offenses could follow them for a lifetime. Sex charges that come from one student kissing another in class could land a high school student on the sex offender registry, changing how he or she lives for years to come.
For serious offenders, time spent outside the classroom and in juvenile detention can set the student further behind and increase the risk of repeat suspensions, expulsions, and police involvement. But by choosing disciplinary strategies that keep students in school and help them recognize the effect of their choices, principals can improve student outcomes and help keep their records clean.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a juvenile defense attorney with Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents students in suspension and expulsion hearings as well as in juvenile court. If you know a student who is facing school discipline, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.