by Sabrina Holcomb
The video of a school resource officer’s violent takedown of a 16-year-old girl sitting at her desk has ignited new concern around school discipline policies that criminalize nonviolent behavior, particularly the conduct of students of color.
The video was a stark reminder that the statistics and stories we hear about student suspension and arrest rates are about real children.
Multiple factors contributed to the escalation of this incident from a cell phone infraction (the student pulled out her phone in class) into a national controversy about discipline, race, and the societal factors that cause some students—and adults—to act out.
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Everyone agrees, however, that clearly defined roles, guidance, and training for school-based security personnel and staff can go a long way toward de-escalating emotionally fraught situations – and would benefit both students and adults alike.
The fallout from the video has given new urgency to advocates working to change the culture and policies that are pushing an unprecedented number of students, especially ethnic minorities, out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.
Girls of color, particularly black girls like the student in the video, are disproportionately vulnerable to disciplinary intervention. One Department of Education study found that black girls in New York City are expelled 53 times more and suspended 10 times more than their white counterparts.
If you don’t live in a state that’s changed its legislation in response to this trend, chances are you will. The efforts of a coalition of concerned educators, organizations, and community activists have convinced a growing number of states and school districts to overhaul their school discipline laws and conduct codes in an effort to keep more kids in school.
In 2016, Illinois will launch a bill that addresses racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. And last year, California became the first state to pass a law limiting the use of “willful defiance” as a reason to expel or suspend students.
California school security officer and NEA member Victor Marquez thinks that the changes are great, for the most part.
Students committing cell phone infractions are a daily occurrence that Marquez handles with professionalism and affection for the students he protects.
Last month, Marquez was called to a classroom to deal with a California student who refused to surrender her phone to a substitute teacher. When the teacher tried to grab the phone, the student cursed at her.
“To you and me, a phone is just a phone, says Marquez. “To these kids, their cell phone is their life. When you take their phone, it’s like a part of them is missing.”
Marquez’ great relationship with the students, and the techniques he’d been trained to use, helped him and a colleague de-escalate the situation. The girl gave the phone to Marquez and later apologized to the teacher for her behavior and language.
A few years ago, before California’s discipline policies changed, this student would have been suspended, says Marquez. Today, she’s in class.
Help keep more kids in the classroom by advocating for positive discipline policies. Take NEA’s pledge to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline.