Before students of all colors can succeed equally in Connecticut’s public schools, we must be bluntly honest about why disparities exist. Hispanic students are 25 percentage points, and black students are 20 percentage points, less likely to graduate high school in four years than their white classmates.
Statistics like these are talked about collectively as the “achievement gap,” yet in reality there is no such thing.
An achievement gap would exist if we gave every student equal opportunities and some children still failed to achieve.
In a myriad ways, we do not give all our children the same opportunities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in school discipline policies that exclude children from the classroom. House Bill 6834, which is currently before the Legislature, would narrow Connecticut’s opportunity gap by limiting counterproductive discipline policies that disproportionately keep minority children out of school.
Children of color are excluded from school at high rates. In Connecticut, black female students are suspended and expelled at five times the rate of white females. Black males are 3.4 times more likely to be excluded than white males. For Hispanics, the rate is 3.8 times greater for females and 2.5 times for males. Recently the state reported that minority children make up three quarters of the suspended students under age 7. At times, these students are punished more harshly for similar behavior exhibited by others.
Exclusionary discipline is associated with academic failure, school dropout and involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These effects are profound and demonstrated in repeated studies. Exclusion also fails to manage behavior. If two students are expelled for fighting, for example, they will not mend their relationship or learn better ways to deal with their anger. Exclusion teaches nothing: Except perhaps the lesson that your education is a priority for no one.
House Bill 6834 calls for districts to track suspensions, expulsions and student arrests by a number of demographics, including race and ethnicity. The state would report annually on these data. This is a good first step, but this bill would be stronger if it required corrective action plans from districts that are not treating their students equally.
Telling reports on disparate treatment of students have been released time and again, and this has not shamed us into closing the opportunity gap. Schools that fail to provide an equal education for students of color must be moved to action.
The most damaging form of exclusionary discipline is student arrest. A court appearance quadruples the chances that a student will drop out. With police commonly stationed in schools, responsibility for maintaining discipline often falls upon officers. Kids have been arrested in our public schools for such minor offenses as “possession of tobacco by a minor.” A simple argument between students can be deemed “breach of peace.”
Connecticut has taken some steps to correct this, and 6834 would go further. The bill supports a “graduated response model” to student misbehavior. In other words, arrest should be the last resort for dealing with non-dangerous behavior.
Educators would first try more rational and restorative responses, such as a parent-teacher conference or mediating disputes between students. The graduated response model would be part of a written agreement between police departments and school districts specifying what role officers stationed in public schools should play.
Experience tells us that the measures laid out in this bill can make a difference because districts that already use these practices are keeping more kids where they belong, in school.
In two years, a project that defined police roles and closely tracked discipline data brought down the number of Hartford students referred to juvenile court by 28 percent. In Bridgeport, it cut referrals in half.
These cities are using more restorative practices that require students to take responsibility for their actions and also direct them to services that address the underlying reasons for their behavior. New Haven has adopted a similar approach, and early outcomes show promise.
Exclusionary discipline fails to improve behavior, leads to educational failure and is disproportionately applied to students of color. We spend a lot of time in Connecticut debating how to fund education. These discussions often reference the “achievement gap.” Such conversations are important. But there is a way to rapidly improve outcomes for students of all backgrounds that won’t cost a dime: We can actually let them come to, and stay, in school.
Leon Smith is director of the Alternative Schools Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy.