Ankori-Karlinsky '16: We're Expelling Our Kids to Prison
An op-ed in the Rutland Herald by Roi Ankori-Karlinsky '16, a member of the Bennington College Incarceration Task Force, argues that strict suspension and expulsion policies in public schools cause significantly more harm than good.
Vermont suspends or expels thousands of students a year. In 2013, almost 4,000 public school students were either kicked out or suspended from school.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a problem: A student did something wrong, he or she paid the consequences. Teachers are overworked and underpaid, and we can’t tolerate disruptions in our classrooms. That’s how it should work, right?
Unfortunately, no. A closer look at school discipline, both nationwide and here in Vermont, reveals these policies are hurting our students, our teachers, our safety and our wallets.
Research from institutions, state governments and health workers across the country has shown that tough disciplinary policies (or “zero-tolerance” policies) cause exponentially more harm than good.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that suspended and expelled students are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than graduate, experience worse health and have fewer educational and job opportunities.
Moreover, exclusionary policies increase students’ illegal behavior. Studies show that a student who has been expelled is three times as likely to be incarcerated as a student from the same school and background who hasn’t been expelled.
It’s important to remember that these aren’t just a few “bad apples.” Most suspensions and expulsions are administered for minor infractions, like sleeping in class. Schools often refer students directly to law enforcement. Many if not most of these cases do not involve any threat of physical violence.
To this day, there have been no reliable studies that show how exclusionary policies improve school climate, safety, or a student’s behavior.
To this day, there have been no reliable studies that show how exclusionary policies improve school climate, safety, or a student’s behavior. According to the American Psychological Association, excluding a student from school, rather than improving behavior, academic performance or school safety, does the opposite.
In this state, 90 percent of incarcerated individuals under 22 are high school dropouts. Combine that with the lack of support for formerly incarcerated individuals and Vermont’s 40.9 percent, three-year recidivism rate, and the picture is clear: The lack of educational support for our struggling students is creating a cycle of increased crime. Without even noticing it, we’ve built a school-to-prison pipeline right here in Vermont.
It gets worse. Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined. According to a 2015 report by Vermont Legal Aid, students with disabilities are nearly three times as likely as others to be suspended. African-American and Native American students are two to three times as likely to be suspended as white students.
Vermont ranks 15th in the country in school-to-police referrals. Even though black students make up only 2.4 percent of our student body, they make up over 8 percent of students referred to law enforcement. Students with disabilities make up over 40 percent of referrals to law enforcement.
This is not just immoral: it’s expensive. Incarceration bleeds the state’s wallet. Vermont annually spends $49,502 per inmate, but about $16,000 per student. That’s $33,000 less spent per student every year. Even without the effects of incarceration, a high school dropout will cost the state money: He or she will earn $400,000 less and pay $60,000 less in taxes over a lifetime.
So what can we do? We can take our cue from other states. People across the country have begun to change these draconian policies. Washington, D.C., once the center of “zero-tolerance” policies, has now mandated annual reports that reduce how many kids are disciplined. Following last year’s report, suspensions in the district were down 20 percent and expulsions were almost cut in half.
States from Maine to Washington have passed similar legislation. Their recommendations are simple and sensible, and they work. They include implementing evidence-based alternatives such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program, providing education services to expelled students and allowing expulsions and suspensions only for violent cases.
Vermont is way behind. No improvements to school discipline policies have passed our Legislature in years. If so many people agree on this issue, why are our legislators not doing anything?
There is cause for hope. The Senate Education Committee is convening a summer study on school discipline, an effort initiated by Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington). But a study won’t necessarily accomplish anything. We hope the study leads to real legislation next session. Currently there is no movement on concrete legislation and there is no real pressure on politicians.
The data are clear: Suspensions and expulsions harm our students, the safety of our communities and the state’s ability to support and protect its residents. Vermont has a fiscal, safety and moral obligation to invest in our students early so we don’t have to pay to keep them in prison later.
The data are clear: Suspensions and expulsions harm our students, the safety of our communities and the state’s ability to support and protect its residents.