For far too many children, the path to prison begins in our underfunded schools. Rather than invest in the basic educational and social services that will help troubled children succeed, many schools rely on harsh, "zero-tolerance" discipline policies that result in suspensions, dropouts and arrests for even minor, nonviolent misbehavior. These policies push students into a juvenile justice system that criminalizes many of them.
Too often, the juvenile justice system writes off misbehavior in affluent school districts as "typical adolescent rebellion" while the same behavior by a student in a poor, minority school district is likely to be viewed as "criminal behavior" that warrants harsh consequences. This misguided approach to school discipline is driving up the dropout rates for both students and teachers. It does little to improve school climates or make our communities safer. Reversing this trend will require a sea change in the way schools approach discipline.
A cultural shift from zero-tolerance policies is needed in our schools. One research-based alternative, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is gaining momentum among educators as a way to improve overall school climates, as well as academic performance, while keeping children in the classroom. PBIS has been successfully used in both urban and rural school districts and in those with high and low concentrations of poverty.
Implementation of PBIS is a key provision in several class action settlements reached between the SPLC and school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. The results have been promising. For example, two years after PBIS was implemented throughout the Jefferson Parish, La., school district, the out-of-school suspension rate for special education students was cut in half. Out-of-school suspensions for general education students dropped 24 percent after the first year.
PBIS implementation is just one of the ways the SPLC is working to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. The nonprofit has also launched campaigns to address the use of alternative schools to warehouse students and deny them the educational services to which they are entitled. In addition, SPLC works to ensure that youth most likely to be pushed out of school receive individualized support to increase their chances of graduating, to address racial disparities in school discipline practices, and to increase parental engagement in the formation of school discipline policies and practices.