The "school-to-prison pipeline" that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system does not always start with overtly discriminatory behavior.
Rather, it is often the compilation of what some would see as small omissions, "mere" oversights, resulting in the demise of our most vulnerable students. A parent goes uncalled. A sleeping student goes unawakened. A child's mandatory education plan is hastily written without expertise vital to meet his needs. A student misbehaving is summarily suspended or expelled. Zero tolerance. No excuses.
Students are more likely to drop out when school policies and procedures, such as those above, do not properly address their needs, leaving them to feel school is not a place where they belong. Others are forced out by harsh discipline. Research shows that these are the very students whose future will likely include poverty and contact with the criminal justice system. Once suspended, students are more than four times more likely to drop out of school. Young people who drop out of high school are more than eight times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate, eliminating any chance of contributing to the local community and economy.
This tragic result is why S.C. Appleseed along with the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an administrative class complaint with the state Department of Education against the Beaufort County School District on behalf of five students and their peers, whom the school district failed to provide with much-needed special education services and who were then suspended and recommended for expulsion. This complaint was meant to stem students being pushed out of Beaufort schools and into a life consigned to academic and economic failure.
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After reviewing the complaint, the Education Department determined that an extensive investigation into the treatment of all special education students in the district was warranted. Paperwork oversights were found. However, the department also found voluminous violations of the law.
The district claims that these were mere administrative errors, but schools require students to show their work and the law requires the same of school officials. District paperwork shows a practice of denying disabled students the services they need and then suspending or expelling them from school.
From this investigation, the district has been mandated to take immediate corrective action. The district was to meet with every parent in the district whose children's rights might have been violated. Was your special education student suspended or expelled, going without needed services in school? Are you one of those parents?
If you aren't one of those parents, do the circumstances of a handful of other people's kids really matter? Actually, the numbers are more shocking than you'd think. In 2009-2010, the most recent data available, more than 2,500 students in the district were suspended. Black students with a disability suffer twice the risk of being suspended than other groups of students with disabilities. A black student with a disability is four times as likely to be suspended in the district as a white nondisabled student.
Why? Students with disabilities in Beaufort County are going without needed services that would improve their behavior. Counseling and similar services can be the defining difference to students struggling with behavior in school as a result of disabilities.
In the investigation, many district students were found to be receiving a token amount of five minutes of counseling per week. Records of one such student noted that he was hearing voices in his head telling him to do bad things. The district decided that five minutes of counseling per week was enough to meet his needs. Would you be comfortable having your child in the school cafeteria, library or bathroom with this student, who is not being adequately served by the district?
There are pressures on public schools like never before. But public schools are the very place where students at risk most need to be. Schools must be accountable for every student, not just those who are easy to teach. One research-based method, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports is gaining momentum among educators as a way to improve overall school climate as well as academic performance while keeping children in the classroom. PBIS is in place in some schools in the district, but every school needs to be using its principles with every student every day.
No one enjoys making a mistake, and certainly no one enjoys having their mistakes made public. But this effort is about more than finding mistakes; this can be a turning point for the district and for the entire community. We know that Beaufort County school officials have the ability to follow the law, to keep kids in school and to guide them to a bright future. The district could lead the way in demonstrating a firm commitment to keeping all children in school and to serving them well while they are there.
Amanda Adler is staff attorney and Stephen Suggs is deputy director at the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center