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Better Choices than Suspending Young Students

The two-hour discussion at our national union’s headquarters featured Florida Center for Inclusive Communities Co-Director Lise Fox, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility Deputy Executive Director Tala Manassah, Annie E. Casey Foundation Senior Vice President Ralph Smith. The panel also included Ken Zarifis, a teacher and president of Education Austin, which is affiliated with both AFT and the National Education Association (NEA).
In attendance was AFT Connecticut Vice President and Meriden Federation of Teachers President Erin Benham, who the following day presented at a seminar on achieving safe and supportive schools. Benham, her fellow union leaders and district administrators have rolled out a new survey tool to facilitate early intervention social-emotional issues like bullying or suicide prevention.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far in Meriden,” said Benham. “It has been the product of hard work and collaboration between our teachers and administration. Together we’ve been able to quickly identify students in trouble, and make corrections to create a safer, more enjoyable school experience for them,” she added.
Click here to learn more about Meriden Public Schools’ early intervention efforts.
Panel speakers at the ECE discussion brought up several components that can help preserve a safe, learning-conducive environment without resorting to suspension and expulsion. Among them, imbedding social-emotional development into school routines as well as strategies to anticipate and identify problems before they blow up in the classroom. Also discussed were stronger home-school connections through avenues like home visits, time and space for educators to meet and confer, and support from social work and mental health specialists.
Smith warned that disproportionate numbers of young children, particularly those of color and living in poverty, “start to fall further behind because of out-of-school” responses like suspensions. In some circles, discussions of this issue become “an inconvenient truth that is morphing into heresy,” he noted, adding, “I am impressed that the union has chosen not to get into the fetal position but to take action.”
This issue has become especially important in light of controversy at New York City’s Success Academy Charter School Network. Recent reports have shown the charter management organization (CMO) to use suspensions more frequently than other city schools, and that these punishments have been disproportionately inflicted on students of color.
Click here for more on the findings at Success Academy charter schools.
“These reports from New York are outrageous, but, sadly, not surprising,” said AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel. “Here in Connecticut we have seen a similar disproportionate rate of discipline in schools managed by CMOs when compared to traditional public schools. Our member educators have long raised the need for more oversight of schools operated by outside management — especially when they take public education dollars. It’s good to see policy makers looking more closely at these overly harsh practices,” she added.
Click here for Hochadel’s remarks on legislation signed into law in Connecticut this year requiring greater accountability for CMOs.
Zarifis at the forum spoke of the “unacceptable reality” of too many “children being suspended, referred and moved out on a daily basis.” These problems are often magnified by education budget cuts that swell class size, erode home-school connections, and hinder the development of anything beyond approaches that only begin with infractions. “The entry point needs to be moved back” to the conditions that lead to problems, Zarifis said. He added that one of the keys to achieving that is “communication leading to strong relationships” between home and school.
Many points raised at the forum reinforced how rigid school discipline policies are effectively discriminatory and help feed a national “school-to-prison” pipeline. That’s why union leaders are calling for an overdue re-evaluation and a much-needed course correction of the “zero tolerance” approach to student behavior in American public education.
Click here for AFT President Randi Weingarten’s recent column on the issue.

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