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Schools should abandon outdated rules that unfairly punish kids

Schools across Maine routinely suspend and expel kids for misbehavior. During the 2013-2014 school year, 6,482 Maine students were suspended and 238 were expelled out of about 180,000 students statewide, according to federal data collected by the Department of Education.

Yet studies have shown that suspensions and expulsions neither deter students from misbehaving nor make schools safer. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite: that by alienating already marginalized students, suspensions and expulsions can push them closer to risky behavior and away from academic success. Students who are suspended and expelled are more likely to drop out of school, commit crimes and do worse academically.

Studies have also found that minority students are more likely than their white peers to be suspended for the same behavior.

In response to this damning evidence, in 2014 the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines urging schools to “explicitly reserve the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and alternative placements for the most egregious disciplinary infractions that threaten school safety.”

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When former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced these guidelines, he said kids can’t learn unless they feel safe. He recommended that schools replace suspensions and expulsions with nonpunitive discipline policies to create safer learning environments.

Yet Maine schools still rely heavily on “zero-tolerance” policies, which mandate suspensions or expulsions for certain offenses. According to a recent Bangor Daily News survey of Maine public schools, more than 60 percent of the 229 administrators surveyed said they have zero-tolerance policies in place for drug-related offenses. Many of these same school principals acknowledged that zero-tolerance policies do not work.

Maine school leaders need support to move away from zero-tolerance policies. School boards should reform their discipline codes to make suspensions and expulsions permissible only as a last resort. They should replace these practices with research-based interventions that support positive behavior and train educators in these new methods.

Restorative justice, an approach that focuses on repairing the harm done to the victim and the community, is one alternative that holds promise. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, a system for improving school climate and preventing and reducing disciplinary incidents, is another.

Any district wishing to cut down on suspensions and expulsions can contact the PBIS network of Maine and the Restorative Practices Collaborative of Maine for support. Administrators can also find many programs to build resilience among young people online. Two big resources include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s registry of evidence-based practices and Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, a directory of programs by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Like any big change, transitioning away from the zero-tolerance policies that have dominated schools’ discipline codes for the last few decades will take time and considerable effort. But it’s a change that school leaders must make if they want to give Maine’s most marginalized youth a shot at living meaningful, dignified lives.

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