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School discipline needs to change

Minor infractions shouldn't be punished with school suspensions or expulsions, Vanessa Walsh writes.
Minor infractions shouldn't be punished with school suspensions or expulsions, Vanessa Walsh writes.
suesmith2, Getty Images/iStockphoto

At first glance, I appear to be an odd choice for a student-rights advocate. Why, then, do I care about the education data on Utah released this past spring by the U.S. Department of Education?

In the spring of 2014, I was a 40-something woman trying to start a second career and was competing with students half my age. I took a summer position as a legal research assistant. The job description was fairly straightforward — interpret statistical data for a public-policy clinic. I was just going to interpret data and add a bullet point to my resume. But after looking at the numbers and the story they told, there was no way I could not get involved.

The data showed over 1,200 disciplinary actions in Utah elementary schools — including law-enforcement referrals, school-related arrests and expulsions. These are children under 12 years old, and we were kicking them out of school and arresting them.

This made me think back to when my son was in elementary school. He collected keychains and had over 50 of them dangling on his backpack. One of his most treasured ones was a small novelty wooden pocketknife his grandmother purchased at Yellowstone.

He carried this heavy keychain-riddled backpack to school every day for almost a year. One day, I got a call from the principal saying they had confiscated a knife from my son and I needed to come to the school. I was shocked. When I arrived, I realized it was the Yellowstone pocketknife. The school had a zero-tolerance policy regarding weapons and the principal had no choice other than to call me in. My son and I explained where the keychain had come from and that it had been unopened on his backpack for over a year. We promised never to bring it back and were dismissed.

I hadn’t given that day a second thought until looking at this data. I asked my son, now 19, if he remembered that day. I was struck by the clarity with which he recalled it — it had been a traumatic event for him.

If the principal had strictly followed the zero-tolerance policy, my son would have been suspended, expelled or even referred to law enforcement. Research suggests this type of discipline alienates students and makes them more likely to drop out. My son escaped formal action, but other children in Utah are not as lucky.

One in 5 students drop out of Utah high schools. When students are removed from school by suspensions or expulsions, they are more likely to enter the criminal justice system and/or drop out of school, which has consequences that extend far beyond future earning potential.

I care about these issues as a parent and as a taxpayer. I don’t want Utah’s children to be funneled out of school and into jails. Our community needs to get involved. Minor infractions shouldn’t be punished with suspensions or expulsions. School districts should eliminate these types of disciplinary actions in elementary schools and reduce their number in middle school and beyond. Doing so will keep our children connected to school and help ensure a better future for everyone.

Vanessa Walsh is a second-year law student at the University of Utah College of Law.