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School discipline: Ringing a bell for reform

Resource type: News

New York Amsterdam News | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

There are many lessons I took with me from my treasured 15 years as chief judge of the state of New York, principally that there is an “after-life”—meaning, after mandatory retirement from the court at age 70. Always there is opportunity to try to make this world more just.

Two other lessons top my list. First, both in life and in the after-life, you need to be an optimist. You have to believe you can help make things better. There are so many naysayers around every issue. Unless you truly believe that you can help effect change, you most definitely can’t.

Second, chief judges are great conveners. Even if they don’t themselves know how to solve a problem, they can bring together the people who know what needs to be done and press them to do it.

Those three lessons came together in a nationwide summit, “Promoting School-Justice Partnerships: Keeping Kids in School and Out of Courts.” Judges, chief judges, educators, advocates, researchers and a wide range of caring individuals from 48 jurisdictions gathered in New York City from March 11-13 to put their heads together around the problem of keeping kids in school and out of courts.

We know for sure today that simply staying in school through high school graduation is not itself the key to a happy, productive life in our challenging society. However, we also know for sure today that not completing high school—due to being suspended, expelled, arrested or dropping out—is the key to a pathway that none of us wants for ourselves, our kids or our nation’s future. It’s called the “School to Prison Pipeline,” and we know the profile of our prison population, starting with the racial disproportionality.

I began the summit by ringing a school bell, figuratively and literally. It was the first school bell I ever heard when I was 5 years old in a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York. The bell was a gift to me from local residents.

For my parents, both immigrants to the United States, the dream was that their children would be healthy, safe, educated and prepared for a good life—meaning one that utilized their talents and fulfilled their ambitions. As for so many, for my parents, this was the American dream.

The summit closed two full days later with Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, ringing that school bell, reciting the devastating statistics on what is in fact not the dream but the nightmare for far too many parents and children. The message was clear: We need to reroute those kids and rekindle the American dream.

From start to finish, the two days were packed with information, starting with compelling data on school discipline first from the state of Texas and now from the federal Office for Civil Rights.

It’s hard to quarrel with data showing the effects of two decades of exclusionary school disciplinary policies that are too often imposed for nonviolent behavior. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in his videotaped remarks, referred to this as the most important civil rights issue of our generation.

The summit was organized around presentations, breakout groups and 48 individual tables—with one of each of the U.S. jurisdictions being represented—for discussion about what to do next. At each table were state representatives, students from every New York City law school to record the discussions and packets of data on that jurisdiction’s school discipline statistics.

As I look back on the event, it’s hard for me to say what was most exciting about the summit. Was it that so many people came from every part of the United States to address what they recognize as a major problem today? Was it the content and high quality of the presentations? Surely both.

Was it the enthusiastic participation of so many wonderful law students—the next generation of my profession—giving of their time to address what they too see as a daunting issue? Absolutely.

But in the end, one reflection stands out above all others. It was the buzz at each table as a packed room of judges and educators—a rare face-to-face combination—studied their own state’s school disciplinary data, exchanged their ideas in lively dialogue and made plans to continue their unprecedented conversations. For it is clear to me that, in the ABCs of solutions to this daunting problem, the accent clearly is on the C: collaboration.

There is no single solution. We need a broad array of collaborations to assure that problems are spotted early and dealt with appropriately. Suspension, expulsion and arrest have to be a last—not a first—response to student misbehavior.

Several attendees referred to this as a “landmark” conference. I see it that way too. It brought together people who are eager to collaborate on what needs to be done in their own schools and communities and will press us to restore the American dream.

The New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children is an Atlantic grantee.