ACLU leads discussion about school disciplinary reform

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Advocates for school disciplinary reform spoke to educators, administrators and parents about dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline at CO+HOOTS in downtown Phoenix Tuesday evening.

Organizations such as the Discipline Revolution Project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona came together to foster a discussion about the mistakes schools make in disciplining students and how to better interact with students to promote academic achievement.

Schools that lack the resources and training to properly discipline students often disproportionately target certain demographics of minority students with harsh measures, according to Cami Anderson, a representative for the Discipline Revolution Project.

Anderson, a former teacher and superintendent who worked both in classrooms and in the justice system, noted her firsthand experience with the punitive pipeline as a mother and an educator. In her current work with the Discipline Revolution Project, she aims to repair what she says is a “monster” system.

Studies show children of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students and English Language Learners often face stricter punishments for their actions than their peers.

Demand2Learn, a student retention campaign from the ACLU of Arizona, published that Latino students in charter schools are six times more likely and African American students are eight times more likely than their white peers to receive out-of-school suspension in Maricopa County. Native-American students going to district schools bordering tribal lands in Maricopa County are up to 10 times more likely to be suspended than white peers.

Minor infractions can be severely punished, resulting in worse disciplinary records for non-white students.

The types of punishment doled out by schools inadvertently cause harm to these students by decreasing academic retention, according to Anderson.

Anderson presented statistics that said suspension is shown to multiply “likelihood of dropping out and being court-involved by three-fold.”

The policies in place push students out of the classroom and derail their academic careers.

Anderson’s organization wants to shift the definition of discipline. The kind of discipline she says will benefit students, focuses on hard work, dedication and mastery rather than forced, rigorous obedience.

She said too often, educators treat problematic behaviors as if they are static faults, rather than moldable features. Anderson questioned why adults believe that anger management and conflict resolution skills are not as teachable as algebra or literacy.

“We would never accept the notion that a kid just can’t learn how to read,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s approach is a mix of proactive and reactive methods.

Troubled teens often suffer from heavy emotional baggage or emotional trauma that teachers need to address before expecting behavior to improve.

Former teacher Luis Avila spoke about his own mistakes in this aspect.

“I was a really bad teacher,” Avila said, acknowledging his lack of experience with education.

He recalled sending a disobedient student to the principal without trying to understand what caused the problematic behavior. The student’s accumulated offenses resulted in a suspension, and he did not return to the school.

What Avila did not know was that the student’s mother had recently received a terminal cancer prognosis and the student was now the main financial provider for his household.

The behaviors that stemmed from a bad day resulted in measures that had much larger implications for a student who was capable and competent, according to Avila. Avila regretted not taking the time to better assess the situation at hand.

The importance of involving family members closely in school matters was underscored by a number of speakers.

Anderson spoke about the development of trust early on between parents and educators. Too often, parents are only contacted as a last resort for poor behavior.

“You end up spending more time at the point of impact,” Anderson said, rather than by investing time in families along the way.

Dawn Demps is a mother to a black son. Demps said she became concerned with some school’s disciplinary tactics in response to her son’s behavior.

“I try to intervene when I can and offer up alternative suggestions when possible,” Demps said. “Sometimes parents have to be agitators to make the school system change.”

Anderson said she came across policies and procedures that were fundamentally racist.
Infractions were handled unfairly and had to be reshaped to address students correctly.

One way to combat a broken system is to listen to students. Anderson said that some of the most helpful data came from student feedback and communal efforts to understand their needs.

“There’s strength in numbers if we’re all working on this together,” Anderson said.

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