A group parent, youth and teacher advocates rally in Washington, DC to support alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance and end the school-to-prison pipeline. (Photo credit: Dignity Schools Campaign)

When Marlyn Tillman’s son got caught up in questionable disciplinary actions at his Georgia school more than seven years ago, she co-founded Gwinnett SToPP, an organization fighting to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in the Gwinnett County School District.

On Monday, Tillman and many other parent, student and teacher activists across the country traveled to Capitol Hill to tackle how minority and disabled youth are being pushed out of the school system nationwide. The group was part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), a coalition made up of 78 organizations from 22 states that’s challenging the current ‘push out’ problem in today’s schools. The rally was a direct response to the new data that showed the depth of racially charged school suspensions and how early the discrimination begins.

According to the Office of Civil Rights Data Release School Discipline, black preschool children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but are 48 percent of the children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. In addition, while black students represent only 16 percent of student enrollment overall, this group is more likely to be referred to law enforcement (27 percent) and are more likely to be subjected to a school-related arrest (31 percent).

“We want a school climate that focuses on positive results,” Tillman said. “The rally was to call attention to the policies that push our children out of school. The issue is not that our disabled, black and brown children are inherently bad. The issue is how they’re viewed.”

A recent study revealed that black boys as young as 10 are perceived as guilty and more mature than their white counterparts. Researchers tested 176 police officers as well as 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students. In both instances, the subjects overestimated the age of black youth.

“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a prepared statement about the study.

DSC also held a press conference on the Hill to release its School Discipline Assessments, which compare new federal School Discipline Guidance with local school district policies in Wake County, NC and San Francisco, CA. Because of the lack of guidance and accountability from School Resource Officers in Wake County, NC students were arrested for water balloon fights. And San Francisco, a district where African American students make up only 10 percent of the student population but 50 percent of suspensions, passed a Safe and Supportive Schools Resolution that will support increased training in cultural competency and funding for restorative practices.

In 2012, DSC released the Model Code for Education and Dignity, which provides recommended policies that schools, districts and legislators can use to help end the school-to-prison pipeline. Some of the comprehensive recommendations include:

1) implementing curriculum that teaches critical thinking, the history and culture of the communities students come from, core subject areas and college-level courses, art, music, physical education and other creative and engaging subjects; 2) using strategies to recruit and retain teachers from the communities where schools are located and who reflect the demographics of the student population; 3) holding school-wide forums, such as town hall meetings, for students to voice opinions; 4) ensuring participation in decisions affecting their individual child’s education including, an “early warning” system for academic or behavioral challenges; 5) ending zero tolerance policies by using non-exclusionary discipline responses and alternatives to suspension, like mediation, restorative circles, counseling, and tiered support team interventions; 6) prohibiting arrests unless there is a finding of probable cause that a student has committed or is attempting to commit a serious crime — not a school discipline matter — supported by a real and immediate threat to the physical safety of a member of the school community; and 7) providing training to any educators or staff who are identified as demonstrating discriminatory behavior and hold them accountable following those trainings.

“The Model Code for Education and Discipline can be used on the local and state level to promote a learning environment that’s healthy,” Tillman said. “Discipline should be used as a means to teach children how to behave. Correction should not be punishment.”

In addition to pushing policy, Tillman’s organization, Gwinnett SToPP, trains Gwinnett County parents on how to become education advocates and provides them with the tools needed to fight school disciplinary practices through its Parent Leadership Institute. Gwinnett County is the largest school district in Georgia serving more than 160,000 public school students. Late last year, an African American male in the county made national news when he was kicked out of school for hugging his teacher. In another part of Georgia, Baldwin County, a six-year-old girl was treated like a criminal and handcuffed after throwing a tantrum at her school in 2012.

To prevent incidents were teens are suspended for something as innocent as hugging a teacher, Gwinnett SToPP is a part of DSC’s Solutions Not Suspensions Moratorium that equip teachers and school administrators with effective alternatives to suspensions and harsh punishments. Every year about 3.3 million children in the U.S. are suspended from school, which causes them to miss critical instruction time.

“Suspensions create trauma in children,” Tillman said. “We need solutions to stop suspensions.”

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