IT’S not surprising that kids who aren’t in school tend to end up in the juvenile courts. What is surprising is why these kids aren’t in school. Every year, tens of thousands of Washington students are removed from our public schools through exclusionary discipline.
According to the newly released report Reclaiming Students by Washington Appleseed and TeamChild, students in 183 of the state’s 295 school districts missed more than 70,000 days of school due to long-term suspensions alone during the 2009-2010 academic year.
Even more shocking: Despite our constitutional mandate to provide a basic education to every child, Washington state laws and regulations are silent about educating students who are suspended or expelled. The Reclaiming Students report shows that the majority of students don’t receive educational services while excluded.
This is unacceptable. Without access to education, these kids are less likely to progress academically, less likely to graduate, and far more likely to end up involved in the justice system.
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To cite just one statistic, 75 percent of prisoners nationwide do not have a high-school diploma. The funneling of children out of high school and into a life of crime results in huge costs both for society and for kids themselves, who never achieve their real potential.
Students of color are disproportionately represented in the numbers of students who are suspended and expelled from school. (The same racial disparity is reflected in our juvenile courts.)
The Reclaiming Students report found that during the 2009-2010 school year, Washington state students of color were 1.5 times more likely to be disciplined than their white peers. Students of color and low-income students were also less likely than their peers to receive any type of educational service while removed from school.
Many young people seen in the King County Juvenile Court are out of school for disciplinary reasons, sometimes for major infractions and sometimes for inconsequential offenses. For many, the simple opportunity to remain in school might have kept them on a different path.
Our schools are strapped for resources and it is easy for at-risk youth to fall through the cracks. But when school districts continue to remove students from school for disciplinary reasons and don’t have alternatives for the kids who are expelled, we have essentially thrown them away.
We do not doubt that the kids who are suspended for long periods or expelled present daunting challenges to overworked teachers and administrators. However, removal from school is not the answer for these kids. It does little to address the underlying behaviors or improve the safety of our schools.
It’s time to start taking real steps forward to address the flaws in exclusionary discipline and help more kids stay engaged in school. As the Legislature considers how to adequately fund basic education in Washington state, these invisible students cannot be left out of the conversation.
We support two very concrete steps to address exclusionary discipline. First, improve school discipline data collection and make it publicly available so that educators, students, parents, juvenile-justice professionals and advocates can work together to make sure that we are making measurable progress in reducing the numbers of students who are removed from school for disciplinary removals.
Second, ensure that virtually no students are removed from school indefinitely and that all students have the opportunity to successfully re-engage in school.
Let’s support schools in keeping students, give schools the resources to address youthful behaviors in an educational setting and improve our graduation rates by keeping young people in school and on track to a brighter future.
Helen Halpert, left, is the chief judge in King County Juvenile Court. Katie Mosehauer is the executive director of Washington Appleseed.