Having recently graduated from high school after attending various schools across Minnesota, and interning this summer with a juvenile defense attorney, I have seen firsthand how schools push too many students—especially students of color—out of school and into the juvenile justice system.
This approach isn’t right, and it isn’t working. Schools are failing students by being too quick to execute a punishment, which has lasting, negative impacts. To combat racial disparities in school and society, schools need a new approach to school discipline that is grounded in student perspectives and alternatives that work.
The schools I’ve attended had many differences in resources, demographics, and reputation. However, they all had one thing in common: Students of color received the most disciplinary attention, even though their behavior didn’t warrant it. Throughout high school, I got involved with the Youth Executive Board and the Minnesota Youth Council’s Education Committee to bring awareness to this injustice, discuss discipline with other student leaders, and advocate for student rights.
This past summer, I also had the privilege of assisting a juvenile defense attorney at the Legal Rights Center, a legal nonprofit that provides holistic, client-centered adult and juvenile criminal defense and restorative services to low-income people and communities of color. The LRC’s Youth, Education, Advocacy, and Restorative Services program facilitates restorative family group conferences in schools around the Twin Cities, offers free Know Your Rights trainings for youth, and represents juveniles in delinquency proceedings. Through my internship, I have seen the harsh realities facing youth in the juvenile system, but also alternatives to suspensions and expulsions that have much higher success rates than school pushout.
While there is a multitude of research about the negative effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, collateral consequences of having a record at young age, and the psychological effects of being in the system, we too often overlook one of the most important sources of information: student perspectives. I believe one reason student perspectives are overlooked is that, besides researchers, most people are not even aware of the extensive, systemic use of school pushout.
That’s why a critical first step is that students, whether or not they’re on the receiving end of punishment, get informed about their school’s discipline policies, practices, and trends. Students that are not facing school pushout must also care about the experiences of those that are, because the community suffers when one student’s potential is more valued than that of another. Students who aspire to be leaders must understand that each student has a gift to contribute to the community and that we can’t allow for a fellow classmate to be left behind. This is essential, because in order to elevate student voice, all students inside the school need to be united in defending their right to an education.
The reality is there are alternatives to punitive discipline that lead to a higher degree of positive transformation for youth, such as the use of restorative practices, like the LRC’s family group conferencing.
This approach brings together the student, family, friends, and school staff to discuss the student’s strengths and areas of potential growth, and create a support and accountability plan to aid the youth in being successful moving forward in school. The plan is one in which everyone—including the student—is accountable for doing their part.
With punitive practices like suspensions and expulsions, there is a misconception that students will learn from their mistakes. Through restorative practices like family group conferencing, students actively engage in identifying the root cause of their behavior and finding solutions to resolve it.
Throughout my short time as an intern, I have already seen just how heavy consequences are in punitive systems, both in school and in the justice system. I have also come to realize just how better things could be, for a student’s life and for the broader community, if schools handled discipline differently.
My hope is for schools to move away from school pushout, and towards providing more holistic support to students. In order to help break the cycle of school pushout, it is important that all students are knowledgeable about their school’s discipline policies and united in finding better approaches for their classmates.
As for schools, they should make increased efforts to educate themselves about different ways to address discipline issues besides the strictly punitive route. Schools should also be serious about implementation of alternatives and create an action plan that involves students.
By understanding systemically disproportionate and punitive school discipline, fostering collaboration, and elevating student voice, we can create alternatives and end school pushout.