Exclusionary discipline sends children on wrong path

Pierce County Juvenile Court, its probation department and its community partners have been nationally recognized for their leadership in reducing the numbers of youth who are detained at Remann Hall, our county’s detention facility for youth.

From an average daily census of more than 140 youth incarcerated 10 years ago that number has been reduced to an average census of fewer than 40 youth incarcerated daily in 2011.

Pierce County has also made noteworthy progress reducing the disproportionate incarceration of minority youth. These successes have been accompanied by an overall decrease in the juvenile crime rate.

While juvenile justice stakeholders are proud of these accomplishments, we are keenly aware that reducing the numbers of low-income and minority youth involved in the justice system must start earlier, before a child’s decline into delinquency and involvement with law enforcement and the courts.

This is a critical issue not just for poor people and minority groups. Tax dollars used to finance criminal justice in Washington nearly doubled in the previous two decades due to increased adult incarceration rates. And early intervention and prevention efforts are our best chance at continuing to reduce violent crime in our communities.

A recently released statewide report by Washington Appleseed and TeamChild, titled “Reclaiming Students: The educational and economic costs of exclusionary discipline in Washington State,” takes a hard look at the negative impact exclusionary school discipline policies have on increasing the chances that youth will come in contact with the criminal justice system.

The report finds that low-income students and minority students are up to twice as likely to be subject to exclusionary discipline – suspension or expulsion. The report also suggests that exclusionary discipline policies exacerbate the educational opportunity gap impacting low-income and minority students and do not make schools safer.

Most of the students subject to exclusionary discipline do not receive any educational services during their suspension or expulsion – causing them to be disengaged from the critical support offered by attending school and putting them at greater risk of dropping out.

Many of these students have also experienced childhood trauma and other adverse childhood experiences. Being disconnected from school and without positive social support makes it even harder to turn around challenging behavior and get back on track.

As a state, we have a constitutional mandate to provide equal quality education to all children in Washington. However, exclusionary school discipline policies appear to fall short of that requirement.

We also have an obligation to help our community’s young people overcome the negative impacts of childhood trauma and to get the support and treatment they need to be successful adults.

Annie Lee, executive director of TeamChild, points out that “having safe schools is incredibly important but simply excluding students doesn’t make schools safer. We need to take the time to look at behavior, figure out what’s underlying it, and give tools and support to teachers to intervene and help students learn and grow from the experience whenever possible. That’s what can create safe and supportive settings.”

We encourage parents, community activists, legislative leaders and school officials to consider the recommendations in the recent Washington Appleseed/TeamChild Report.

As a community, we need to seek innovative solutions to dramatically reduce the number of students removed from classrooms for disciplinary reasons and find better ways to keep students engaged in school, to provide appropriate supports and to keep them out of prison. We cannot afford to do anything less.

Frank Cuthbertson is a Superior Court judge in Pierce County, and Jeannie Nist is the statewide training and advocacy coordinator for Seattle-based TeamChild.