A school hallway should look like this: overflowing lockers, students running late to class, classmates huddled laughing or studying, teachers carrying mugs filled to the top with coffee, and above all an overall feeling of comfort, support, and safety. However, this is often not the case for many students, particularly students of color. Rather, school hallways are filled with tense students nervous about making the wrong move in the presence of a school resource officer.
Black students receive harsher punishment than white students in educational settings, indicating that racism is embedded in our school systems. One student’s silly remarks and playful behaviors to their friends could be seen as “all in good fun,” but for another student, it results in detention and the shame of being in trouble.
For too long the education system has been intertwined with the criminal justice system, causing an immense number of negative consequences for students. A school should be an environment that promotes growth and not criminalization. To remedy the current disproportionate discipline among Black youth, Connecticut lawmakers should support passage of the “Counseling Not Criminalization In Schools Act,” which is a proposed federal bill that was first introduced and cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. By redirecting federal funds to social workers and counselors rather than law enforcement, the bill would help cater to the needs of students while also limiting the number of unnecessary student arrests happening in schools.
In a report on student discipline in Connecticut public schools, the suspension rates of African American and Hispanic students have been significantly higher than those of white students in the past five years.
This pattern of higher suspension rates, among other modes of discipline, highlights that students of color are found to face harsher disciplinary measures than white students. In 2020, while only 1 out of 34 white students faced suspension, 1 out of 10 African American students faced the same punishment. In other incidents including sexual harassment, bringing a weapon to school, and school-based arrests, Black and Hispanic students were disproportionately represented and received harsher punishment than their white classmates for the same violation. The unacceptable abuse, humiliation, and trauma that our young people experience due to the growing presence of law enforcement in our learning communities are extremely detrimental.
For students of color who receive greater disciplinary actions than their white counterparts, the effects are much more than just getting in trouble at school. The negative stereotypes and racial stigmatization that students of color face daily perpetuates the decreased motivation to learn, and oftentimes leads to higher dropout rates among Black students. Further, these students who were expelled or suspended were two times more likely to get arrested in that same month than students who did not receive that same sanction.
Students of color are disproportionately criminalized for normal adolescent behavior and put on a pathway to prison. This can be referred to as the “school to prison pipeline,” and schools that create an environment of criminalization have a lasting effect on these students. Schools are meant to be a place of nurturing and support, not injustice and confinement. The presence of law enforcement on school campuses is flourishing, while 90 percent of students attend schools where the number of counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists does not meet recommended professional standards. School is supposed to be the safest place for a student. Trained personnel like social workers, counselors, therapists, and trauma-informed specialists can provide students with strong support in time of need and can help prevent acts of violence from occurring. Incorporating counseling rather than policing will help to create that safe environment while also giving students an outlet and a support system, ultimately leading to better personal growth and less incarceration.
Hannah Tjalsma is a junior at Trinity College from Andover, MA, currently double majoring in Psychology and Educational Studies. Elle Fair is a junior at Trinity College from Westport, majoring in American Studies.