The right dis­ci­pline is an in­vest­ment in stu­dents

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MON­ICA E. GOLDSON The writer is the in­terim chief ex­ec­u­tive of Prince Ge­orge’s County Schools.

Cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment that in­cludes struc­ture, love and dis­ci­pline is my guid­ing prin­ci­ple at home as a par­ent and in the class­room as an ed­u­ca­tor and ad­min­is­tra­tor. Strik­ing the right bal­ance of dis­ci­pline — one that is firm yet fair — is a chal­lenge for ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents alike. This bal­ance is cru­cial be­cause these de­ci­sions af­fect the cul­ture of our schools and the stu­dents within them.

Yet, ed­u­ca­tors too of­ten view dis­ci­pline as a means of keep­ing schools safe and not as an op­por­tu­nity for in­ter­ven­tion. This dis­tinc­tion is key as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Com­mis­sion on School Safety made a re­cent rec­om­men­da­tion to re­voke pre­vi­ous guid­ance from the Jus­tice and Education de­part­ments that ad­dressed some school dis­ci­pline poli­cies dis­pro­por­tion­ally af­fect­ing dis­abled and stu­dents of color. The data show that ed­u­ca­tors were de­ploy­ing strict dis­ci­pline in place of mean­ing­ful in­ter­ven­tion, and that af­fects stu­dents well be­yond their school years.

Un­for­tu­nately, this rec­om­men­da­tion treats school dis­ci­pline the same way so­ci­ety treats peo­ple strug­gling with ad­dic­tion: it crim­i­nal­izes them. It ig­nores the many fac­tors con­tribut­ing to a stu­dent’s be­hav­ior be­fore they walk through the school­house doors.

I have seen this play out through­out my ca­reer as part of Prince Ge­orge’s County Schools, one of the largest and pre­dom­i­nantly black and brown school dis­tricts in our na­tion. In the 1990s, I was a young ed­u­ca­tor, start­ing out as a math­e­mat­ics teacher and even­tu­ally ris­ing to a high school prin­ci­pal. Around this time, zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies were the pre­ferred so­lu­tion to keep­ing stu­dents in line — forc­ing some stu­dents onto a ham­ster wheel of sus­pen­sions be­fore ship­ping them to al­ter­na­tive schools or push­ing them to give up en­tirely and drop out.

The sys­tem that was de­signed to sup­port stu­dents was let­ting them down, and so was I.

We saw kids act­ing up in class or get­ting into fights as nui­sances. We cre­ated a process to re­move them from school and in­di­rectly set them on a path to be re­moved from so­ci­ety.

Over time, we learned the harsh con­se­quences for re­ly­ing on such poli­cies. Young men and women of color and stu­dents with special needs were rep­ri­manded more of­ten and faced stiffer con­se­quences.

The re­sult left these young peo­ple feel­ing that their voices were not heard (and when they are, they’re told they are too loud, too ag­gres­sive or have an at­ti­tude). In­stead of pre­par­ing our kids for col­lege and ca­reers, we pre­pared them for in­ter­ac­tions with law en­force­ment and the crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem.

To ad­dress these is­sues in Prince Ge­orge’s County, we are re­think­ing our school dis­ci­pline poli­cies. We un­der­stand the prob­lems our stu­dents face be­fore they en­ter the school­house and are pro­vid­ing wrap­around ser­vices in tar­geted ar­eas to sup­port their so­cio-emo­tional needs. We are de­ploy­ing con­cepts such as restora­tive prac­tices to develop pro­duc­tive re­sponses to con­flict and in ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances send­ing fam­i­lies to boot camp where pre-K and kin­der­garten fam­i­lies prac­tice skills to self-reg­u­late and cor­rect dis­rup­tive be­hav­iors.

In­stead of writ­ing our kids off, we are fo­cus­ing on con­nect­ing them with needed sup­port. In 2019, we plan to ex­pand our ex­ist­ing wrap­around ser­vices to train more pro­fes­sional school coun­selors, coach teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors to pro­vide di­rect ser­vices for fam­i­lies. We know there is more work to be done to ad­dress our dis­ci­pline ef­forts, but we can­not wait for a per­fect so­lu­tion when the need to act is ur­gent now.

In the past two years in Prince Ge­orge’s County, we saw preschool stu­dents with dis­rup­tive and ag­gres­sive be­hav­iors be­ing re­ferred for in­creased dis­ci­pline. In mid­dle school, sim­i­lar trends are ev­i­dent. In Septem­ber, the num­ber of sus­pen­sions is­sued for fight­ing more than tripled com­pared with the pre­vi­ous year. If the pat­tern con­tin­ues for the rest of this school year, more than 2,500 mid­dle school stu­dents will have been sus­pended. These are 11- and 12-year-olds still de­vel­op­ing rea­son­ing and crit­i­cal-think­ing skills.

Our stu­dents come to school in­flu­enced by their sur­round­ings and our dis­ci­pline poli­cies should re­flect this. From poverty to sex­ual abuse to sui­ci­dal thoughts, we must give our stu­dents the sup­port needed to deal with is­sues out­side the class­room to im­prove their per­for­mance in the class­room. To suc­cess­fully pre­pare our youngest ci­ti­zens for col­lege and ca­reers, we must in­vest in cre­at­ing en­vi­ron­ments that have struc­ture, love and dis­ci­pline. We can­not turn a blind eye to these is­sues as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sug­gests. We must ad­dress them head-on. The fu­ture of our coun­try de­pends on it.

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