Connecticut experts serve on education panel

Three Connecticut residents, including a Yale professor and a state representative from New Haven, have been selected for a national education focus group examining the state of discipline in U.S. schools.

Yale School of Medicine professor James Comer, University of Connecticut professor George Sugai and state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield were selected for the focus group by the Department of Education, the Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs. The 18-month project builds on a July 2011 report from Texas A&M University, “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” which found that around 15 percent of public secondary school students studied were suspended or expelled 11 times or more.

The focus group, comprised of 100 education specialists — including psychiatrists, social workers and policymakers — met for the first of three times in Washington, D.C. last week. The bipartisan group will put forth policy recommendations to the federal government regarding how public schools should approach disciplinary measures in a mid-2013 report.

The underlying problem with discipline in public schools, said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, is that society has “criminalized” normal adolescent behavior. Anderson cited an incident at Connecticut’s Middletown High School in which a 17-year-old student stole a Jamaican meat patty from the cafeteria and refused to put it back when a police officer told him to, leading to the student being Tasered.

While state laws typically mandate that schools suspend or expel students for certain types of crimes, the report found that most public high schools discipline students at a higher rate than what is required. In making this discovery, Texas researchers noticed another phenomenon — minority students are much more likely to be suspended, expelled or disciplined in a manner that involves police.

For similar types of infractions, the disciplinary measures can differ based on race and class, said Holder-Winfield.

“In some schools, a student will never have to end up in the juvenile justice system because [their actions are] treated as a behavioral issue,” he added. “There’s somewhat of a preconceived notion about who these [minority] children are before they enter school, and then when they act up, they confirm that, and then there’s a belief that these schools need different types of punishments.”

Kyisha Velazquez, Program Manager of the New Haven Family Alliance Juvenile Review Board, added that Connecticut public schools’ zero-tolerance policy — the state laws that require certain disciplinary measures for certain offenses — significantly increases the likelihood of a student ending up in the juvenile justice system. Even if a principal wanted to use discretion in choosing an alternative punishment, Velazquez said, he or she would likely have to follow the zero-tolerance policy, leaving little room to treat these infractions as behavioral, instead of criminal, problems.

Comer, who founded the Comer School Development Program to assist in school intervention, said that certain types of interactions involving students can be “misunderstood” as behavioral problems because of cultural differences between different schools. He cited a case in which students were arrested for shadowboxing, which he said he used to do as a kid because it was “part of the culture.”

Focus group members were especially concerned that unnecessary suspensions and expulsions put students at a much higher risk of ending up in the juvenile justice system.

“When students are excluded from school for problem behavior that is not addressed effectively at school, they are at increased risk of school failure and later problems like delinquency,” Sugai said.

The 2011 study found that entrance into the juvenile justice system makes a student more likely to end up in the adult justice system, perpetuating a cycle of incarceration.

“Juvie is just a younger version of the adult justice system, and it puts these kids into contact with individuals they might not have come into contact with before,” Comer said. “There’s a lot that comes with touching that system.”

The Texas A&M study found that only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated high school during the period in which the study was conducted.

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