Decriminalizing the Classroom: School climate Bill of Rights

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Beth Ellor

“I believe the purpose of public schools is to educate not exclude children and to help identify and meet child needs, not make children serve adult convenience, self interest, and systems.” So begins the article published in the 9/26/14 Newsletter of the Children’s Defense Fund, written by Marian Wright Edelman. Please read the entire article, here:

‘Decriminalizing School Discipline’, Marian Wright Edelman, CDF Newsletter 9/26/2014

How often do you come upon an article that precisely aligns with your values and beliefs, as well as targeting a topic that has been resonating constantly in recent weeks? As a subscriber to the Children’s Defense Fund Newsletter, this will happen more frequently – talk about children, schools, poverty, injustice and discrimination is bound to resonate with a teacher these days!

This most recent article, however, is vital to the future of our schools and of a just society. It also bears hopeful news of documented efforts being made in Los Angeles, and in other parts of the country.

Click to follow the School Climate Bill of Rights initiative in Los Angeles, ‘a package of policy changes that rolls back “zero tolerance” discipline and institutes resource-based alternatives. Introduced by LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia, it was passed by the LAUSD Board on May 14,2013.’ (from their website).

The School Climate Bill of Rights is a project of the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition, of which the Community Rights Campaign is a founding member,’ under the auspices of Liberty Hill, an L.A. organization which ‘advances social change through a strategic combination of grants, leadership training and campaigns.See their website here.

What is at issue here? First off, dismiss all the rhetoric about the past, and ‘the effectiveness of classes of 50 which nevertheless succeeded in graduating whole swaths of the population.’ Whatever it was like then, whatever was true or manageable then is irrelevant, because guess what, the whole social landscape has changed, and it’s not working now! Again, the seemingly condoned and unchecked tendency of schools to over-value compliance and obedience at the expense of nurturing the variety and complexity of every person who enters their doors. This doesn’t mean anarchy or the ascendance of the ‘me’ generation, but compare self-regulation to the “Whole Brain” discipline approach favored by many reform/charter schools! See a nice glitzy presentation here,

Discipline becomes the canary in the mine when you ask yourself: “What’s not working?” If so many of our students are having such a hard time participating fully in their educational experience, it’s time to stop blaming the students, their families, and/or their ethnicities and start asking why learning has become so toxic to so many of them? Ask yourself – if the Kindergarten program you are using (Core Knowledge in this case) causes some previously mellow children to hide under tables and pitch chairs and books, while alternately screaming and mumbling unintelligibly; “Uh oh, a disruption – we’ll never get done with the 25 minute direct instruction piece!” – or to cry inconsolably when they are asked to complete a page in their workbook, or scramble onto the lap of a visitor (me) and snuggle into her shoulder, trembling, is it the children we should punish (with 3-day out of school suspensions – no point in taking away recess, that was gone long ago)?

Is our only option to call the Security Guard to manhandle the 4 year old out of the room with a combination of motherly bribes and fierce threats? In upper grades, we have to find out why the required subjects are so hard/uninteresting – apart from the lack of text books and materials, the social pressures of real life, and the cumulative deficits of poor learning conditions of whatever kind. Of course it is frustrating to confront classes day after day which seem to have no interest in learning, and are routinely rude, dismissive and disruptive. Remember too that being oppositional isn’t the only way we lose kids – there’s a great deal of well-behaved boredom, obedience and lack of stimulus in classrooms across the country that manages to fly under the radar but are equally significant losses.

Hearing the descriptions of the routine ticketing of low-income minorities in Ferguson, Missouri, which lead to the issuing of bench warrants, fines, and imprisonment for non-payment of minor local ordinances created for this very purpose leads me back around to the exact same practices in schools. Once you’re singled out for any infraction, the noose simply tightens around your neck continuously. Even in elementary schools, children will tell you – “Oh, he’s bad, he don’t listen to no-one.”

The efforts described in this CDF newsletter must become the new rallying cry for our schools. These are all our children, and acting compassionately towards them must not be confused with weakness. Having high academic expectations must not be confused with expecting the impossible when content has never been taught. The social cost is unacceptable, as are the economic costs. We’ve gone a long way down the path of this new normal, where families and whole communities are destroyed by criminalization and incarceration. What does it look like to turn this around? This is the generation where the tide must turn, and the power be given back into the hands of communities and individuals. A great many people and organizations are focused on this transformation and facilitation must be made to make this happen, from the creation of dedicated Professional Learning Communities for support within schools, to the structural changes needed to enforce the protections passed in the L.A. School Climate Bill of Rights. Let it be so!

This post originally appeared on Beth Ellor’s page, and was republished with permission.


Beth Ellor has explored the New York City schools as a parent, as an early childhood teacher, and as a retiree currently providing professional development to inner city schools (as an independent contractor for a celebrated i3 provider). Also a substitute teacher in a wide range of schools, she is a close observer of the reality behind the rhetoric of school success, struggle and reform.

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