Every child should be able to dream big, yet we’re facing a discipline crisis in schools across the country. Children, who should be placed on pathways to college and the careers of their dreams, are instead pushed out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system through the use of overly harsh school disciplinary policies. Often they are criminalized for minor misbehavior such as talking too loudly or violating a school dress code. For instance, a high school senior in Florida was expelled and arrested earlier this year for a science project gone wrong. While Kiera Wilmot’s case was dismissed, she still bears the stigma of an arrest record.
Instead of investing in children and fostering supportive environments where they can succeed, many school districts turn to suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests to deal with typical pre-adolescent and adolescent behavior. This approach harms all students, but children of color, students with disabilities and students identifying as LGBT are acutely impacted by harsh school disciplinary practices also known as ‘zero tolerance’ policies. One suspension increases the risk a child will drop out of school and one school-based arrest can wreck emotional havoc, not to mention derail a student’s job prospects or acceptance to college or the military.
As a pioneer in the movement to end the over-criminalization of youth, Advancement Project has long advocated for alternatives to harsh school disciplinary policies. From years of research, we understand what works in terms of creating safe, nurturing learning environments where students can succeed.
If it’s hard to conceptualize the many approaches to building nurturing learning environments, Open Society Foundation’s new video, Up for Debate, makes the point vividly clear. The video features an exceptional example of a creative school debate program (Baltimore Urban Debate League), which helps students develop meaningful interactions with adults in their schools in addition to finding their own voice and expressing themselves.
In the 9-minute video, we meet Kaela, who once struggled building relationships with adults in school. After joining the program and winning two medals during her first debate, she flourishes into a great debater and student. Alternatives to harsh disciplinary policies help make the difference between whether students succeed or fail.
As this program has shown, overall comprehensive solutions exist. We just need to take the time to identify and implement alternatives that give students needed support and the chance to dream BIG!