This essay was also published in the local Oak Park newspaper Wednesday Journal.
Two recent incidents at Oak Park River Forest High School have caused many parents and community members to react with alarm. Several weeks ago, there was a fight between a group of students in the lunchroom. And this past week, a student struck two other students with an object which rumors said was a gun. In response, talk around the village has been predictable. Some have accused the school staff and administration of reacting inadequately to these events. Others have claimed that tighter and more severe discipline is in order, or that more police officers would prevent these kinds of events from happening.
It is understandable that parents want their children to be safe, and it is understandable that communities want safe schools. It is also true that schools exist in communities and are impacted by outside events. And that schools across Illinois and across the country have been experiencing an increase in challenging student behaviors this year, as students returned to school buildings during an ongoing pandemic.
School administrators must, by all means, do what they can to keep students safe. But they are not superhuman. They cannot prevent all negative incidents from happening. They must work to proactively create school communities where teachers have positive and motivating relationships with students and where students have supportive relationships with one another. When incidents happen, they must work towards healing between those members of the community who have injured one another. And at times, it is the right choice to move a student out of a school through suspension or expulsion. But school staff members’ immediate response to challenging student behavior cannot be, “Kick them all out!”
Increasing punitive discipline overall is an inappropriate response for several reasons. First, suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately applied to Black students, Latinx students, students with special needs, and English Language Learners. Next, punitive discipline pushes students away from school by causing them to fall behind on their work, leading to disconnection from school and eventually dropping out. And finally, punitive discipline doesn’t work. Students who face suspensions or expulsions often re-engage in the same behaviors that originally led to their punishment.
Most of those criticizing school officials have not been in a school on a daily basis since they graduated. Many of those criticizing school officials know little about the principles of young people’s development toward adulthood. So by all means, let’s maintain community accountability toward developing positive, supportive, and motivating school environments for our students. But let’s steer clear of knee-jerk criticism of school administrators, and let’s avoid calls for punishing more students when in many cases, we know very little about the actual incidents that occur in schools and have no experience creating communities of young people.
Instead, let’s back the adults who work with our young people. Let’s stop reaching for punishment as the immediate solution to our problems. And let’s support positive, inclusive schools that allow students to unveil their brilliance and purpose.
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