Middleton, Brown: School discipline policies creating a new separate and unequal

05/14/2014 12:00 AM

05/13/2014 6:22 PM

On this week’s 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision striking down de jur segregation, the school-to-prison pipeline once again is teaching children of color that they are indeed separate and that they are certainly not equal.

Harsh and unequal school discipline practices in a number of communities throughout our state disproportionately push out black and Latino students from the classroom into the criminal justice system. Increasingly, students of color are drawn into this school-to-prison pipeline, often after over-zealous suspensions and in-school punishments that discourage rather than encourage commitments to the learning process.

Education is a top priority for all South Carolinians. Regardless of what divides us, we should agree on one thing: In order to enable all children to succeed, to reduce unemployment and poverty and to solve the workforce shortfall in our state, we need children to stay in school. To improve our graduation rates, we need to reform discipline practices that unnecessarily send them on the path to prison. School should be a place where kids learn from their mistakes and are taught positive behaviors, not pushed out. Dumping students into detention centers costs our state, and it short-changes them individually.

New federal guidance issued in January by the federal departments of Justice and Education provides a blueprint for schools to institute positive discipline practices and end harsh ones that bring kids in contact with the criminal justice system. The guidance recognizes and documents that children from communities of color are suspended, expelled and arrested out of proportion to their representation in the general school population. Even a brief look at data that our schools submit to the Office for Civil Rights shows that in too many school districts, this is a troubling problem in our state.

A “zero tolerance” approach to discipline has led to high numbers of students being unnecessarily suspended, expelled and even arrested for behaviors that are not serious threats to safety. The over-use of law enforcement in our schools, as well as too many arrests for vague offenses such as “disturbing schools,” should be addressed.

Reforms that are succeeding in other states could work in South Carolina. Some communities elsewhere have successfully adopted memorandums of understanding between school districts and law enforcement agencies to clarify that police should be responsible for handling serious crimes — not youthful misbehavior. And schools across the country are rolling back overly harsh discipline practices in favor of positive alternatives.

In 1954, the problems of racial discrimination in education were overt and explicit. Today they are sometimes more subtle and structural. But the cost to our children and our society is strikingly clear. This time it falls to our communities rather than the nation’s highest court to acknowledge and confront the latest version of “separate but equal.”

The remedies are within our grasp, and we call on our school districts, courts, law enforcement agencies, community organizations and parents to take positive action. This important anniversary reminds us of the legal and symbolic victory that was won 60 years ago, but it also should remind us how much more needs to be done to achieve what we wanted then, and still want now, for all our children.

Ms. Middleton is executive director of the ACLU in South Carolina. Dr. Brown, a Claflin University professor, was a plaintiff in the 1963 case that finally ended segregated public education in South Carolina. Contact them at vmiddleton@aclusouthcarolina.org or milbrown@claflin.edu.

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