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Is Harsh School Discipline Necessary? That’s Up for Debate

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Every child should be able to dream big, yet we’re facing a discipline crisis in schools across the United States. Children should be placed on pathways to college and the careers of their dreams. Instead, too often they are pushed out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system through the use of overly harsh school disciplinary policies.

Minor misbehavior such as talking too loudly or violating a school dress code are frequently criminalized. For instance, a high school senior in Florida was expelled and arrested earlier this year for a science project gone wrong. While Kiera Wilmot’s case was dismissed, she still bears the stigma of an arrest record.

Instead of investing in children and fostering supportive environments where they can succeed, many school districts turn to suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests to deal with typical pre-adolescent and adolescent behavior. Such “zero tolerance” policies harm all students, but children of color, students with disabilities and students identifying as LGBT are especially affected. One suspension increases the risk a child will drop out of school, and one school-based arrest can wreak emotional havoc, not to mention derail a student’s job prospects or acceptance to college or the military.

As a pioneer in the movement to end the over-criminalization of youth, Advancement Project has long advocated for alternatives to harsh school disciplinary policies. From years of research, we understand what works in terms of creating safe, nurturing learning environments where students can succeed.

If it’s hard to conceptualize the many approaches to building nurturing learning environments, the above video makes the point vividly clear. It features an exceptional example of a creative school debate program—Baltimore Urban Debate League—that helps students develop meaningful interactions with adults in their schools in addition to finding their own voice and expressing themselves.

In the video, we meet Kaela, who once struggled building relationships with adults in school. After joining the program and winning two medals during her first debate, she flourishes into a great debater and student. Alternatives to harsh disciplinary policies help make the difference between whether students succeed or fail.

As the Baltimore Urban Debate League has shown, solutions exist. We just need to take the time to identify and implement alternatives that give students needed support—and the chance to dream big.

Advancement Project and the Baltimore Urban Debate League are both supported by the Open Society Foundations.

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