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Senate Hearing on Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline Shows Need for Federal Action to Reform School Discipline

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Dignity in Schools Campaign | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

Edward Ward, a youth leader with Chicago-based community organization Blocks Together, testified at the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, on the school-to-prison pipeline.

>>Watch the full hearing

Positive Discipline Approaches Should Replace Suspension, Expulsion and Arrest

Washington, DC – Today, Edward Ward, a youth leader with Chicago-based community organization Blocks Together and a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), will testify before the first-ever Senate hearing on “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline” about his first-hand experience with the culture of zero tolerance discipline that has lead to more than 3 million young people being suspended out of school each year, overwhelmingly for minor, non-violent offenses.

The DSC commends Senator Durbin and the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights for holding this hearing and ensuring that the voices of youth leaders like Edward are heard. 

“After seeing so many classmates lose hope because they were punished with suspensions for tardiness, not wearing an ID card around their necks or using a swear word, it made me question the reasoning behind these policies that led to young people missing class time and being abandoned by our schools,” said Edward. “I believed I needed to take part in improving my school and got involved to introduce Restorative Justice practices as an alternative to suspensions.”

With school discipline rates at their all-time highs – double what they were in the 1970s – the DSC believes that there has never been a more important time for federal action on the school-to-prison pipeline. This spike in suspension, expulsion, and arrest occurs in the face of significant research on the educational and social harms of these practices. The American Psychological Association and the Council of State Governments, among others, have identified the links between exclusionary discipline and students being held back a grade, dropping out, and coming into contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. 

“This hearing is important to me because it will finally shed light on the opportunity gap that exists for far too many children in public education,” said Marlyn Tillman, parent and co-chair of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, who will be attending the hearing in Washington, DC. “Students with disabilities and students of color are disproportionately impacted by this national trend. It is my hope that this hearing serves as a catalyst for ending the injustices that our children face in the systems that are charged with educating them.”

“This hearing is a testament to all of the hard work of parents, students, grassroots organizations, and advocates across the country that have been fighting for decades on a local, state and national level to end this school pushout crisis in our nation’s schools,” said Damekia Morgan, of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), who will also be at the hearing.  “I am hopeful that what will derive from this hearing are strategies that will put the federal government at the forefront of holding our states accountable for the millions of students who are suspended and expelled each year from school.”

Over 100 youth, parents and community leaders with the Dignity in Schools Campaign from states across the country will be at the hearing to call on the federal government to provide resources and guidance to support states and school districts in ending these harmful practices and implementing positive solutions.

In the last two years alone, thanks to the work of Dignity in Schools Campaign members and allies, states like California, Colorado, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Michigan have passed bipartisan laws and policies that call attention to exclusionary discipline, limit its use, and/or provide support for educators in implementing practices that keep schools safe and engaging without relying on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.  Cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore, and New York have made significant positive revisions to their disciplinary policies and practices. 

“The federal government can help to ensure that we are keeping students in school by implementing positive approaches to discipline, including peer mediation, conflict resolution, and other restorative justice practices,” said Cheyanne Smith, youth  leader at Make the Road New York and a 16 year-old junior at the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn. “Such approaches should be implemented in all schools. They DO work!”

The Dignity in Schools Campaign has joined the Opportunity to Learn Campaign and other allies in launching Solutions, Not Suspensions, a national call for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions and for more constructive disciplinary policies. The Campaign has also released the Model Code on Education and Dignity, a set of evidence-based interventions and methods to reduce reliance on exclusionary discipline and improve academic performance and school climate through the use of practices like Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS).  

There are a number of bills before Congress that can help to end school pushout and implement these approaches. The Restorative Justice in Schools Act (H.R. 415, Cohen), the Positive Behavior for Safe and Effective Schools Act (H.R. 3165, Davis/Platts), and the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act (S. 919, Harkin) would direct federal support for training in best practices for improving school discipline and climate. Representative George Miller’s Amendment to the Student Success Act (H.R.  3989, Kline) would use high disciplinary rates and disparities to trigger support from local and state educational agencies to provide resources and training for schools in need of improvement.  And the Youth PROMISE Act (H.R.  2721, Scott) would support local or regional strategies to reduce the number of youth entering the justice system.  Passing these bills can serve to foster better learning environments for all.

“We are glad to be in Washington on behalf of the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable and to lift up the voices of the students who are being pushed out by zero tolerance policies in our local schools,” said Kahlil Johnson, Board Chair of Nollie Jenkins Family Center of Lexington, Mississippi who is in Washington, DC to attend the hearing. “We hope that this is the first of many hearings so that everyone around the country knows this is not a small uprising but a national movement to end school pushout.”

The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative’s Dignity in Schools Campaign is an Atlantic grantee.