Friday, October 13, 2017

Craig Ford: Committee looking into school suspensions and expulsions is a step in the right direction

  The late actor Nelsan Ellis, who grew up in Bessemer and went on to become famous for his role on the HBO series “True Blood,” was interviewed by back in 2009. When asked about his experience at Jess Lanier High School, he said, "It's hard to get an education when teachers spend 70 percent of their time trying to discipline students. I grew up knowing I wanted to escape that life, and the only escape was education."

  I believe he hit the nail on the head. Discipline issues are at the heart of why some schools are failing, and addressing those discipline issues is essential for fixing failing schools.

  That is why I am excited that an advisory committee made up of educators, parents, law enforcement officers, public and mental health professionals, and the Alabama Department of Education has been meeting to address the issue of school suspensions and expulsions. In a couple of weeks, the committee will also begin a new training program for educators to help address this problem.

  According to Johns Hopkins University, about half of all students who are suspended multiple times will ultimately drop out of school. And the U.S. Department of Justice reports that two-thirds of inmates in state prisons and local jails are school dropouts.

  The facts are not in dispute: High absenteeism, poor reading skills, and a history of being suspended or expelled from school are all signs that a kid will end up in prison, hurting innocent people in the process and becoming a burden on the taxpayers.

  Even if a child with discipline issues doesn’t end up going to jail, they are still a distraction for other students in their class, and that prevents those kids from receiving the full education they deserve.

  So we have to address the growing number of kids getting suspended or expelled from school. But it’s important to point out that this advisory committee isn’t recommending making it harder to suspend or expel kids from school.

  Making it harder for teachers and principals to remove kids who misbehave will only reinforce their bad behavior and allow it to spread to other kids who see that nothing will happen to them if they are disrespectful or disobedient.

  Instead, what the advisory committee is trying to do is address the reasons why kids act out and correct their behavior before turning to suspensions and expulsions.

  And there are a lot of reasons why a kid might misbehave in class. Sure, some kids misbehave because they haven’t been taught how to act right. But others become disruptive and disobedient for less obvious reasons, such as peer pressure, being bullied in school or problems at home.

  Suspension and expulsion have to remain as options for addressing disruptive and disobedient behavior in the classroom. But truly solving this problem means going an extra step and addressing the underlying causes for why some kids misbehave.

  In addition to the training program that the advisory committee is working to create, I believe that enrolling more kids in pre-K programs can make a big difference.

  Most kids learn very early in life the basics about how to behave. By the time they get to kindergarten, they may have already learned bad habits and disobedient or disrespectful behavior that becomes a long-term problem throughout their years in school.

  But if kids can be introduced to school when they are three or four years old, they have a better chance of developing good habits and a proper understanding of what is expected of them in the classroom (which is also what will be expected of them in the workplace when they grow up).

  And this isn’t just about reducing the number of kids who ultimately end up in jail or prison. I believe disciplinary problems are the reason we have failing schools.

  We can’t have better public schools if we don’t address the disciplinary problems in the failing schools. And that’s why no amount of charter schools or redirecting taxpayer money to fund private school scholarships will ever solve the problem.

  It may take a few years before the full results of their work can be seen, but the work this advisory committee is doing is a huge step in the right direction. It could even have a bigger impact on the quality of education in our state than any other proposal coming out of Montgomery.

  About the author: Representative Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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