Monica E. Goldson is the interim chief executive of the Prince George’s County Schools.
Creating an environment that includes structure, love and discipline is my guiding principle at home as a parent and in the classroom as an educator and administrator. Striking the right balance of discipline — one that is firm yet fair — is a challenge for educators and parents alike. This balance is crucial because these decisions affect the culture of our schools and the students within them.
Yet, educators too often view discipline as a means of keeping schools safe and not as an opportunity for intervention. This distinction is key as the Trump administration’s Commission on School Safety made a recent recommendation to revoke previous guidance from the Justice and Education departments that addressed some school discipline policies disproportionally affecting disabled and students of color. The data show that educators were deploying strict discipline in place of meaningful intervention, and that affects students well beyond their school years.
Unfortunately, this recommendation treats school discipline the same way society treats people struggling with addiction: it criminalizes them. It ignores the many factors contributing to a student’s behavior before they walk through the schoolhouse doors.
I have seen this play out throughout my career as part of Prince George’s County Schools, one of the largest and predominantly black and brown school districts in our nation. In the 1990s, I was a young educator, starting out as a mathematics teacher and eventually rising to a high school principal. Around this time, zero-tolerance policies were the preferred solution to keeping students in line — forcing some students onto a hamster wheel of suspensions before shipping them to alternative schools or pushing them to give up entirely and drop out.
The system that was designed to support students was letting them down, and so was I.
We saw kids acting up in class or getting into fights as nuisances. We created a process to remove them from school and indirectly set them on a path to be removed from society.
Over time, we learned the harsh consequences for relying on such policies. Young men and women of color and students with special needs were reprimanded more often and faced stiffer consequences.
The result left these young people feeling that their voices were not heard (and when they are, they’re told they are too loud, too aggressive or have an attitude). Instead of preparing our kids for college and careers, we prepared them for interactions with law enforcement and the criminal-justice system.
To address these issues in Prince George’s County, we are rethinking our school discipline policies. We understand the problems our students face before they enter the schoolhouse and are providing wraparound services in targeted areas to support their socio-emotional needs. We are deploying concepts such as restorative practices to develop productive responses to conflict and in extraordinary circumstances sending families to boot camp where pre-K and kindergarten families practice skills to self-regulate and correct disruptive behaviors.
Instead of writing our kids off, we are focusing on connecting them with needed support. In 2019, we plan to expand our existing wraparound services to train more professional school counselors, coach teachers and administrators to provide direct services for families. We know there is more work to be done to address our discipline efforts, but we cannot wait for a perfect solution when the need to act is urgent now.
In the past two years in Prince George’s County, we saw preschool students with disruptive and aggressive behaviors being referred for increased discipline. In middle school, similar trends are evident. In September, the number of suspensions issued for fighting more than tripled compared with the previous year. If the pattern continues for the rest of this school year, more than 2,500 middle school students will have been suspended. These are 11- and 12-year-olds still developing reasoning and critical-thinking skills.
Our students come to school influenced by their surroundings and our discipline policies should reflect this. From poverty to sexual abuse to suicidal thoughts, we must give our students the support needed to deal with issues outside the classroom to improve their performance in the classroom. To successfully prepare our youngest citizens for college and careers, we must invest in creating environments that have structure, love and discipline. We cannot turn a blind eye to these issues as the Trump administration suggests. We must address them head-on. The future of our country depends on it.