Posts Tagged expulsions

Juvenile Prison Stats Reveal American Attitudes Towards Kids

Published by — America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.

There is no alternative universe where bad kids go and get better.  Period.  Such a place does not exist.

Mind you, it’s insane to tolerate classroom or school disruptions, never mind criminal activity among children and youth.  A kid wasting a class’s time by flipping over a desk and swearing at a public-school teacher is effectively stealing taxpayers’ money.  A thief is a thief, no matter how old.  Whether kids behave disruptively or criminally, we need to act quickly or they’ll get the idea that what they’re doing is okay.  It’s not.

But why is the most frequent solution kicking kids out?  Alternatives can be found.  But overwhelmingly, American schools and its judicial system remove little rotters from their classrooms, or from the families and communities that raised them, and warehouse them in behavior-disordered classrooms, boot camps, alternative schools or juvenile prisons.  There, they get worse.  Researchers call it “congregate contagion,” meaning they catch bad ideas from other bad kids, like catching measles.  Then they return to the families and communities that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place, having gotten zero help with receiving them back successfully.  How’s that going to make the kid better?

Very smart people, whom I respect, seem to wear blinders to ignore what happens after the kick-out.  Today I’ll pick on one such smart person, Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, precisely because otherwise I admire him tons.  He pleads passionately for simplifying the rules, laws, and regulations that muck up government’s ability to get anything done.  His book The Death of Common Sense permanently transformed how I thought about rules and regs.  His recent work, The Rule of Nobody, argues that legalistic micro-managements absolve actual humans from making judgments and taking accountability for them.  I’m with him.

But is it common sense to include in Howard’s lists of regulatory idiocies rules that limit kids being summarily removed from class?  For him it’s a no-brainer; kick ‘em out.  But where and how will bad kids ever learn community-appropriate rules if not in a healthy community?  For example, wouldn’t it be cheaper and far more effective than prisons or other warehouses to pair a non-violent kid with a trained person, working one on one to reintegrate him or her into the home, school and community in healthy ways?

If presented with the evidence, I bet even Howard would agree prisons offer no hope of making bad kids better.  And yet they are an over-flowing landfills of unwanted children.

Consider the Cross-national Comparison of Youth Justice.

America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.  A fascinating study by researcher Neal Hazel looks at incarcerated youth and children, under 18, across juvenile-justice systems in 20-plus nations.  The differences are stunning.  (You’ll find his chart comparing countries on page 59.)

The lowest juvenile rates are:

Japan           0.1 (youth per 100,00 under 18)

Finland         3.6

Sweden        4.1

As a British researcher, Hazel bolds the U.K. data, horrified to find that the highest rates include:

England and Wales   46.8

South Africa               69.0

But the showstopper is U.S. rate at:  336.0.  It’s the only rate in triple digits.  Nearly 5 times that of the next highest, South Africa.  That’s an enormous garbage heap of kids.  If Americans aren’t genetically prone to produce bad kids, what is the data saying?

Yes, it’s a no-brainer to protect the kids who are cooperating from the disruptive ones.  But our solution creates a different problem.  Howard is both a famous author and a lawyer.  So I’m assuming that whether or not he has kids of his own, he runs with the private-school set.  When kids do the naughty in private schools, they’re out.  End of discussion.  They probably go to public schools.  Some kids, mainly poor and minority, go to urban schools of last resort, the very schools that have been mandated by the President to reduce suspensions and expulsions.  When you’re at the cushy end of segregation, removing disruptive kids is simple and just common sense.  As long as you don’t think about where they end up.

Every night we sit in front of the TV and watch cops shows with plots that follow some version of trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.  Right and wrong are so obvious.  Wrong is wrong.  No excuses.  No mercy.  Bad guys need to be punished and put away.  Anything else is Officer Krupke liberal excuse-making.

Loving and caring for all kids is not simple and often requires more than common sense.  American attitudes towards troubled young people are writ large in our willingness to throw them away.  We do so our own peril.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Colorado Cuts School Exclusions, Racial Disparities Persist

Published by — Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills.

Last year in Colorado, a group called Padres Y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United) managed to get their Legislature to pass the “Smart School Discipline Law.”  Now schools must, by law, userestorative justice or other disciplinary policies before resorting to the harsh punishments of suspension, expulsion, or at worst, referral to law-enforcement.”  In other words, Colorado’s schools had to turn down the spigot that streams kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.  Very civilized.

Then this past March the parents’ group reported that in less than a year, suspensions were down statewide by a healthy 10 percent and expulsions by a stunning 25 percent.  How lovely to live in a state whose schools would jump on such an initiative so enthusiastically.  The results were uneven among schools, so some apparently didn’t bother.  But most did.

However — and this is big — the pattern of racial disparities did not change.  Reductions were roughly the same across all groups, so the all-too-familiar gaps remained the same.  While upsetting, it’s no big surprise.  Much about school kick-out culture is just silly.  But there are other deeper, culturally-rooted issues.  I’ll touch on each.

Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills. 

Rhode Island’s suspension data, which I know intimately, is typical of urbanized states and easy to summarize.  Of the 39 offenses that gets kids suspended71 percent of them last year were for these 5 offenses:

*  Attendance-Cut/Skipped Class

*  Attendance-Cut/Skipped Detention

*  Insubordination/Disrespect

*  Attendance/Left School Grounds

*  Disorderly Conduct

Yes, disrespect can get ugly.  But in the scheme of things, these offenses are pretty small potatoes.  Like the national data, RI’s suspensions reveal that real problems — drug-dealing, violence — are quite rare.  But if kids mouth off or avoid class, they get an awful lot of vacations on the couch in front of the TV.  They learn nothing.

Until this past year, Rhode Island schools suspended kids for bunking school.  Yep, let’s make the problem worse.

Not to disparage their feat, but I’m betting the go-getter Colorado schools merely took on the task, at last, of dumping such counter-productive policies.  Kids greatly prefer TV to being held accountable for their behavior.  It’s super-convenient to toss a misbehaving kid out of school, while it’s a bit of work to treat brat behavior as a teachable moment.  Colorado is showing that schools can find productive solutions to obnoxious behavior.

Changing racial disparities will be a heavier lift. 

Race is highly correlated with poverty.  So no, the racial disparities that are driven by aggressive street culture are not going to disappear soon.  Schools don’t have to make things worse with kick-out culture.  But it’s understandable and super-common that low-income families who struggle to survive teach their kids jungle-survival skills.

Recently a doe-eyed 8th grader talked about being suspended constantly in her old school, mainly for fighting.  This past September her family moved from one poor city to another, and she began attending a school that uses restorative practices.  She told funny stories about her beginnings as a hellion who was flunking everything, but then worked with school adults — Guidance, social services and others — who helped her take charge of the behavior that was getting her nowhere.  With mixed glee and chagrin she confessed “I liked fighting.  But I was getting an 8 in science,” out of 100.  As though it were miraculous, she enthused, “Now I’m getting an 86 in science!”  Then she took a deep breath, sighed and said, “But my dad doesn’t really get it.”

Actually, Dad is furious about her becoming a peaceful good student.  Like millions of American urban kids, she’s been growing up on seriously mean streets.  So her father taught her to fight first and ask questions later.  In effect, a positive school culture came between her and her dad.  Dad’s buy-in is still very much a work in progress.

Even so, she’s a success story.  Many aren’t.  Low-income homes and ‘hoods too often steep kids in hostile, foul-mouthed environments, so where on earth would they learn otherwise unless someone took the trouble to teach them?  At urban schools, street culture collides with the values of building academic skills to gain credentials, degrees and skilled jobs.  Kicking kids out puts them back where they learned to swear and fight in the first place.

But the Colorado schools are on their way, impressively.  Surely they’ll get increasingly adept at teaching community-appropriate behavior.  Silly suspensions will fade.  But cultural issues will persist because they’re embedded in the communities themselves.  The hard problems will require working closely with the parents and community.  And that will take time, effort and resources.

No school should put up with rotten behavior.  But kicking kids out just postpones the real work.  Colorado’s gutsy law will provide rich lessons for the rest of the states.  The sooner the better.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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‘Tis the Season to Reexamine Kick-Out Culture.

Published by — We should re-think our culture of removing difficult kids in education settings, as it does a long-term disservice to them and to us.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” says the Statue of Liberty. But don’t bother me with your disruptive, troubled, immature, angry, or generally bad kids.

America, the land that takes great pride in its history of inclusiveness and tolerance, has zero tolerance for disruptive, rude or misbehaving children.

Virtually every day, America’s education press reports bizarre or outrageous stories about schools ousting certain kids. This morning, for example, the Associated Press reports that a 13-year-old in an Albuquerque school was “handcuffed and hauled off to a juvenile detention for burping in class.” The P.E. teacher felt the kid had disrupted class, so she called the “School Resource Officer,” an in-school cop. Please note that research shows that having police in schools often criminalizes what was once mere misbehavior. Horrible policy.

Surely there’s more to the story about the disruptive burper, but one thing is clear: the teacher feared no repercussions from booting that kid. Likely he’s universally disliked. His behavior canceled his right to stay in school.
Recently, the New York Police Department released a report showing that every day, on average, one student is arrested in the City’s schools, removed in handcuffs. Painfully, 94% of them are black or Latino, and 83% are male.

When America was wealthier, in the 1990s, it supported its kick-out habit by building residential facilities, detention facilities (prisons) and “alternative placements,” programs that segregate the bad kids from the good.

And these expensive exclusions are the mere tip of the iceberg. The National Center on Education Statistics reports that 7 percent of all K-12 students – which includes little kids – were either suspended or expelled in 2006, the most recent data.

Then there’s “in-school suspension” and various other ways of putting kids out of class.

Tons of research shows that troubled kids only get worse when grouped with one another, away from the mainstream. Later, they return from prisons or in-school suspensions to communities or classrooms that didn’t know how to deal with them in the first place.

“Discipline” means to teach. No one learns how to behave as a good community member when kicked onto the streets or into some rarified, hyper-controlled environment like a prison, special school, or suspension room.

Kids misbehave for one of two reasons. One: they know no other way of telling anyone they have problems they can’t solve by themselves. Two: they don’t know how to meet social expectations.

Granted, too few parents teach their kids manners. But who’s teaching the parents? When and how do most kids learn social skills?

This school kick-out habit will be hard to break, because it’s quite old. Factory-model schools were specifically designed to sort, sift and eliminate difficult kids. In 1950 the drop-out rate was 52%. Academic failures could easily find work in a robust manufacturing economy. That was then.

But now, here’s the problem: suspending kids only postpones dealing with whatever the issue is. So it festers and gets worse. The truant elementary kid becomes a terror in middle school and perhaps a gang member by high school. Kicking kids out has contributed to America’s prison population, globally the largest both by percentage of the population and in absolute numbers.

To reverse this trend, we would have to get in the habit of stopping the factory assembly line at the first sign of trouble and dealing with it then. Teach the kid how to behave; practice with him; make sure all the adults are modeling the behavior they want to see. Forge partnerships with social-service agencies to solve serious problems coming from the home.

Yes, that’s much more work than kicking a kid out. But we don’t really have a choice.

Consider, for example, what the Academy of American Pediatrics’ Committee on School Health says about the kick-outs:

“Children who are suspended are often from a population that is the least likely to have supervision at home. Children with single parents are between 2 and 4 times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as are children with both parents at home, even when controlling for other social and demographic factors… Children most likely to be suspended or expelled are those most in need of adult supervision and professional help. In one study, 15% of children who have never been abused but had witnessed domestic violence were suspended from school in the previous year. For students with major home-life stresses, academic suspension in turn provides yet another life stress that, when compounded with what is already occurring in their lives, may predispose them to even higher risks of behavioral problems.”

Disruptive kids are a huge pain in the butt. But they’re the ones who need us the most. Unless they’re going to be locked away for the rest of their lives, they’ll be back. They’re ours.

Prevention is the best medicine. Partnerships between agencies and schools could send workers into homes and communities to deal with social distress and shoddy parenting. Investments on the front end – in curbing truancy and disruptive behavior among elementary kids – would save us expense and anguish on the back end.

‘Tis the season to rethink our habit of booting rude kids out. It’s understandable, but not loving or kind. By all means discipline the unwanted behavior. But at the same time, hold on to the kids themselves, affectionately and unconditionally.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.


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