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Editorial: Vermont schools should limit the use of ‘exclusionary discipline’ for young students

Published: 1/11/2020 10:10:52 PM
Modified: 1/11/2020 10:10:10 PM

It’s hard to be shocked by much of anything that transpires in these turbulent times, but we were stunned to learn recently how frequently Vermont schools suspend pupils in the first through third grades.

Lola Duffort of VtDigger reports that 88 first graders were suspended last school year, among a total of 300 pupils in grades one through three who were subject to in-school or out-of-school suspensions.

Her story, which appeared in Tuesday’s Valley News, began with an account of a 6-year-old first grader at Cabot School who was suspended when the principal deemed that a drawing he had made of stick figures with X’s for eyes depicted a “specific threat of violence.” The boy reportedly told school staff that the figures represented several classmates and that “I am Death.” For this he was banished from campus and co-curricular activities for 10 days, prompting disbelief and creating chaos for his parents, both of whom work outside the home. “I hadn’t heard of another case like this,” his mother told Duffort. “Where the child was as young as mine, getting suspended for 10 days — I mean, I’ve never heard of it.”

Student confidentiality rules make it hard to assess the appropriateness of this particular sanction, but one would hope that punishment of this severity for young children is meted out only in the rarest of cases.

Why? Research cited by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that young students who are expelled or suspended from school are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure, develop negative attitudes toward school and eventually face incarceration than those who are not. In other words, this form of sanction is associated not only with poorer academic performance but also with worse life outcomes. The so-called school-to-prison pipeline can be activated at a tender age.

Moreover, there is evidence that this form of punishment is not imposed uniformly but subjectively, with young boys of color and pupils with disabilities more likely to be affected.

It also seems to us that suspension is hardly the best way to discover what underlying problem, whether in school or at home, is triggering the misbehavior in the first place. In some cases, an unrecognized disability or mental health issue may be at work; in others a social maladjustment that a targeted intervention could ease.

And the problem may not always lie exclusively with the child being sanctioned, but also with others. In the case of the Cabot student, who is biracial, his parents say his classmates often pick on him, using racial slurs; apparently the prelude to the drawing incident occurred when a classmate cut in front of the boy while sledding and he retaliated by shoving the classmate.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, who chairs the House Education Committee, had it right when she told Duffort that, “These are critical years for social/emotional development, where children learn to function within a community. Such behaviors are opportunities for learning and should be treated as such.”

Given the data, Vermont would do well to join other states, such as Connecticut, that are making a commitment to strictly limit so-called “exclusionary discipline” for young children and developing comprehensive strategies for doing so.

Valley News

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