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Extend beats suspend for student discipline

Educational opportunities can’t be squandered

The March 26 editorial, “An Education on Inequality,” cites a national Department of Education study led by professor Russell Skiba of Indiana University-Bloomington. The study reveals dramatic differences in school discipline of white students and students of color. In short, students of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled than are white students.

The disparity is stark, the consequences heavy. “Students who get shortchanged in school will get shortchanged in life,” the editorial observes while describing the DOE study’s findings.

Two striking conclusions from this study are paraphrased. First, “Black students are far more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school.” Second, Indiana is one of five states reporting “male suspension rates higher than the nation for every racial/ethnic group.” Skiba himself states that “the steadily increasing use of suspension and expulsion puts students – especially students of color and other targeted groups – at an increased risk of academic disengagement, dropout and contact with juvenile justice.”

Those are powerful statements. Yet it is in our power to create some practical, do-able solutions for this clear inequality. Suspension-or-expulsion disciplinary codes are tearing more holes in our educational system. Let’s try some other measures.

Disruptive or despairing students can be greatly helped by intensified educational attention. Instead of 10 students expelled from school and abandoned to questionable public spaces, picture those same 10 students in one large classroom with several willing one-on-one or small-group tutors. The tutors might be volunteers or even public school teachers working for overtime pay, during or after school hours.

A large-group setting, broken into smaller groups, would give both tutors and students a feeling of security in numbers. The students’ work at learning would be noticed and respected, and their motivation would grow.

(Some will always cry, “We can’t afford it!” But how can we afford our skyrocketing multibillion-dollar prison system?)

For years I was part of exactly such a tutor-and-student experience at the Mercy Learning Center, before our family moved from Connecticut to Indiana. The Center’s motto is “Educate a woman, educate a family.”

We tutors often worked with women of color who had fallen through the pervasive cracks of the public school system and landed in various stages of illiteracy or innumeracy.

We tutors found that each drop of encouragement, each spoken witness of a student’s progress, would do wonders toward keeping that student immersed in her education. The center’s splendid record of GED graduates speaks for itself.

The editorial mentions Skiba’s hope that Indiana might be willing to tackle its school disciplinary problems with more intelligent strategies. As one step, Gregory Porter, D-Indianapolis, has introduced a bill in the legislature to make schools look at their suspension-and-expulsion rates and create good discipline policies instead. Skiba notes that “Fort Wayne Community Schools is one of the most progressive schools in the state on this issue.” Porter’s bill was referred to a study committee.

I hope with Skiba that the Indiana legislature studies that bill. I hope it can devise codes of discipline that double down on education and thereby liberate people from lives of crime or poverty.

Let’s not throw more young people out of school and into the prison pipeline.

Mariann S. Regan is professor of English emerita from Fairfield University in Connecticut and a tutor for four years at The Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport. She now lives in Fort Wayne and wrote this for The Journal Gazette.