Sunday editorial: Troubled school kids cry for help, not handcuffs

SHARE Sunday editorial: Troubled school kids cry for help, not handcuffs
SHARE Sunday editorial: Troubled school kids cry for help, not handcuffs

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When we watched the now-viral video last week of a sheriff’s deputy in Columbia, S.C., pulling a high school girl from her chair and throwing her across the floor, we had one thought:

This is not likely to happen in Lake Forest or Winnetka.

And therein lies a big piece of the story in America about why some kids go to Harvard and others go to prison.

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In communities of privilege, such as along Chicago’s North Shore, a cop would never manhandle a high school student in such a brutal way, certainly not for an offense as non-threatening as refusing to hand over a phone or leave a classroom. The student’s parents, people of power and means, would make sure heads rolled.

Equally to the point, schools in wealthier communities are rich in resources. They are well staffed with social workers and psychologists. Their response to a troubled kid, even a trouble-making kid, is to offer help early and often, not to whip out handcuffs.

There is no excuse for the deputy sheriff’s behavior, and we should all welcome the ubiquity of cell phone cameras that capture such instances of law enforcement overreaction. Nobody wants a cop to be less than aggressive in doing legitimate police work now that they are being watched more closely; but that’s no argument for looking the other way when a cop steps over the line.

There is no excuse, as well, for a society in which some schools treat misbehaving students like misguided youths in need of help while other schools treat them like future inmates of Stateville.

A wealth of data shows that minority students, as well as poor kids in general, are more likely to be suspended, expelled and arrested in school. Even allowing for the likelihood that more of these young people are misbehaving, they are being punished harder.

In the short run, that kind of police-style zero tolerance for misbehavior might restore order in a school, but in the long run it is counterproductive for both the student and the school. Research shows that suspensions don’t improve a student’s behavior; and the student is more likely to fail courses, repeat grades and drop out.

This is how their journey along the school-to-prison pipeline begins.

African Americans, who disproportionately fill our jails and prisons, also are kicked out of school in disproportionate numbers, beginning in preschool. More often than not, they are disciplined for the kind of misbehavior, such as disrupting class, that would bring a more caring “intervention” — such as counseling and tutoring — for another student.

While blacks make up 18 percent of students in preschool nationwide, they account for 42 percent of students with an out-of-school suspension, USA Today reported in July.

Black Americans of all school ages are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, USA Today reported, and they are more likely to be arrested and referred to law enforcement.

Many of these kids were born behind the eight ball, and now it rolls right over them. Here’s a startling statistic from Catalyst, the education magazine in Chicago: Thirty percent of Chicago Public School students who have a documented history of being abused or neglected received out-of-school suspensions in the 2013-2014 school year.

Were we surprised to learn that the girl thrown across the floor in South Carolina was in foster care? Not at all. Foster care is often a shelter in the storm for kids who have had it hard.

CPS has attempted to address this problem since 2012 by overhauling its student discipline code. The school system has narrowed the acceptable grounds for a student suspension and encouraged more “restorative justice” practices, such as peace circles and conflict resolution training.

The percent of CPS high school students receiving out-of-school suspensions has dropped, from 23 percent in 2008-2009 to 16 percent in 2013-2014. But the rate remains stubbornly high, especially for low-achieving students, black boys and special education students.

It has not helped, as Catalyst reported in September, that CPS budget cuts have forced schools to make do with fewer counselors, social workers and psychologists.

A lucky kid goes to a school that has strong social and emotional support services.

An unlucky kid goes to a school where you get suspended for the kind of offense that might get the lucky kid a social worker.

A high school degree, let alone a college degree, fades from the unlucky kid’s rearview mirror, and harder times roll up ahead.

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