If there’s one thing our fractured society can agree on, it’s that every school should be safe and welcoming for students and staff.
It’s a basic precondition for teaching and learning. When violent incidents happen in schools, it disturbs a place where everyone should be free of fear.
When violence occurs at the hands of someone responsible for keeping students safe, it’s doubly wrong and sends every wrong message.
The shocking video of a white sheriff’s deputy assaulting an African-American high school student seated at her desk is hard to watch and harder to comprehend.
What could possibly justify the officer putting his arm around her neck, whipping her desk to the floor and dragging her across the classroom? On its face, it’s an outrageous use of force and aggression, and it validates people’s worst fears about a police presence in schools. Imagine, if you can, the fear and anguish felt by that girl and her classmates.
This incident comes at a time of reckoning for and reconsideration of discipline policies in American schools.
The zero-tolerance policies in effect over two decades have failed to achieve their intended goal of making schools safer by enforcing tough suspension and expulsion policies. And they have had disturbing unintended consequences — the disproportionate targeting of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBT students, and students with disabilities or special needs for out-of-school suspension and expulsion.
But what should replace these policies?
We can and must employ approaches that make schools safe places for teaching and learning by emphasizing civility, good decision-making and effective ways to deal with conflict. There are cases when suspension and expulsion are warranted and necessary, but less serious (and more common) incidents should be dealt with using appropriate, proportionate strategies.
Research, experience and common sense point to ways to create safe and welcoming school environments. Moving from zero tolerance to positive school discipline strategies involves:
Professional development for teachers and other school staff, including school resource and police officers. Training should include classroom management, child psychology, cultural competency and conflict resolution.
Restorative practices through which students deal with the consequences of their actions and harm to others. Through peer mediation and other approaches, students take responsibility for redressing any harm they have caused.
Integrating social and emotional learning into the curriculum so that students develop interpersonal skills to handle conflict, frustration and disappointment.
Social services to address students’ needs. It’s rare for a student to demonstrate serious misbehavior without already having exhibited signs of needing help — whether social, physical or psychological. Providing such services can help prevent problems, as opposed to simply punishing students when problems occur.
No doubt, #assaultatspringvalleyhigh will be replaced by another hashtag born out of outrage over the devaluing of the lives of people of color. But we must seize this moment to press leaders to make real investments in the kinds of behavior management that create safe and welcoming schools where parents want to send their children, where students are engaged, and where educators want to work.