Sunday, January 5, 2014

Meridian Consent Decree: How to handle troublesome students

Schools all over the country are having problems keeping kids in class. The policies of the Bush Administration, which made funding depend on raising test scores in a school, did not help. Administrators play games to raise the scores in their schools, using the following techniques:

  • Suspend poor students on the day of the test. 
  • Call in law enforcement to take poor students out of school and send them to reform school. 
  • Refer poor performers to alternative schools. 
  • Have the police handle discipline problems.
All these games have one thing in common. They all hurt students. Failure in school leads to failure in life. Poor students go right into the school-to-prison pipeline. The school system keeps running as usual but students fall between the cracks. No one notices they are missing until they turn up in juvenile court or in prison.

Basing school performance on a single, make-it-or-break-it test may have started with the Bush administration, but severe punishments for minor infractions started in the 1970s with the War on Drugs. Zero tolerance programs were introduced, where minor infractions were severely punished. The District of Columbia Municipal Regulations ("DCMR") contain a list of school infraction reads like a list of criminal charges. Students who break a certain set of rules receive minor punishments. Students who break more several behavioral rules receive more severe punishments.

The DCMR lists 12 Tier One infractions. Among these infractions are failure to complete a homework assignment, running in the halls, forgetting to carry school-issued i.d., inappropriate displays of affection, insubordination, and any kind of behavior that causes minor disruption to the learning environment. None of these infractions has any bearing on a student's ability to learn or academic performance. They are all the kind of rules that may be used to manipulate or coerce a student.

These rules are all subjective. A teacher or administrator has great latitude in deciding what constitutes an infraction and what doesn't. Bias-based decisions are the inevitable result. There is statistical evidence for such bias. Non-white students are many times more likely to be suspended or expelled for behavior that all students engage in. Once a student becomes identified as a problem he or she has great difficulty proving the contrary.

No educational system that relies entirely on punishment and coercion can be entirely successful. Most are complete failures. People do not respond well when their rights are taken away. Our country was founded on the principle that liberty--more personal freedom not less--is essential for democracy to succeed.

Education is not a new discipline. Teachers have studied the art of teaching for thousands of years. Many people know well how to teach, even some who work for the Department of Justice. The DOJ proved this by releasing a remarkable document, the Meridian Consent Decree, that describes in detail just what the people of Meridian, Mississippi, must do to improve their schools. The rules and ideas set out in this Decree would, if adopted by all school districts, ensure better schools and less racial bias.

The Justice Department investigated allegations that the Meridian School District gave black students harsher penalties than white students. Their study concluded that (a) nearly all the punishments meted out were exclusionary penalties, the kind that made it harder for those penalized to catch up to their classmates, and (b) black students received harsher penalties, including longer suspensions, than white students who had committed the same infractions.

The result of this law suit could have been a large monetary judgment against the school district because its policies and practices harmed the plaintiffs, students in the Meridian School District. Instead, the School District agreed to implement positive behavior interventions and supports as alternatives to a punishment-based system of teaching. The District also agreed to meet their obligation under Title 4 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to administer discipline without discrimination on the basis of race.

The School District agreed to treat minor infractions as learning opportunities instead of causes for punishment. In particular, the District will treat truancy and tardiness by investigating causes, together with teachers and family, before imposing any exclusionary penalties. The Consent Decree also provides a detailed description of due process rights provided to any student who is suspended or expelled from school.

All these regulations taken together should prevent the school from arbitrarily suspending students to improve the school's examination scores. The United States Government acts in a supervisory capacity to assure that all conditions of the decree are met. Taken together, the conditions of the decree act to replace a punitive, exclusionary environment with one where students' rights are respected and students' families are included in disciplinary decisions.

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