By Hillary Davis, Policy Associate
Imagine for a moment that you are in the first grade, and you’ve had a bad day. Someone bullied you in the cafeteria, you couldn’t pronounce a word when you were asked to read aloud and, to make matters worse, your dad gave you a bruised apple for lunch instead of the chips you know he bought over the weekend. So when your teacher says you’re taking too long to line up for the end of the day, you know you shouldn’t, but you snap at him.
Suddenly, you’re suspended and you believe the label that you’re a problem kid. That feeling is only reinforced over the next eleven years when small misbehaviors sometimes end with you suspended, hanging out with the other kids who aren’t in school in the middle of the day. Unsupervised, they get into trouble, so you get into trouble, and suddenly you’re facing a whole new issue – the juvenile justice system.
For many students, this isn’t a hypothetical; Rhode Island’s schools engage in a suspension culture that funnels children out of the classroom and on to the school-to-prison pipeline. During the 2013-2014 school year, Rhode Island’s schools suspended 8,106 students from school – including 145 first graders. More than half of suspensions were for “Disorderly Conduct” or “Insubordination/Disrespect” – offenses so vague and general they can encompass anything from speaking disrespectfully to another student to failing to serve detention (even though a state law prohibits suspensions for attendance issues). Even though the use of out-of-school suspensions is criticized by the Centers for Disease Control, the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, schools all-too-frequently favor removing children from school over addressing and redirecting their behavior.
Students who are suspended from school have the right to appeal, but few parents are aware of this option and many students just want to get the incident behind them. And so, year after year, Rhode Island’s schools continue to suspend students and set them along the “school-to-prison pipeline,” subjected to a life of consequences involving lower high school graduation rates, and higher participation in the criminal justice system.
Schools should be safe spaces, for students and for teachers, and a place where educating students is prioritized over excluding them. The ACLU of Rhode Island is supporting legislation to limit the use of school suspensions, but we also want to hear from parents and students who feel they were suspended when they should not have been, either because their behavior didn’t warrant suspension or because they were suspended when students with similar behavior were not. Together we can keep students in school, end the school-to-prison pipeline, and give our students a chance even when they engage in the silly, infuriating business of being children.