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When too many students are expelled, crime results

Federal government has recommended school-based discipline

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Jan. 26, 2014.

By Sheila Bedi

The Chicago Board of Education approved seven more charter schools Wednesday; already, 126 out the city's 658 public schools are charters. The growth of these schools, which a number of business executives have supported, is controversial. Here is one of two views.

Chicago's business leaders have backed charter schools, those privately operated, publicly funded schools claiming to implement innovative, data-driven reforms.

The charter movement has been very successful. But there's a problem with our charter schools: They have helped create the conditions that lead to crime.

Some Chicago charter school networks expel children from schools at rates that are eight times — or more — the rate of publicly run schools, according to Voices of Youth in Chicago Education. Charters lead the way in a trend in U.S. schools turning to overly punitive policies. One study cited in a U.S. Department of Education report found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent, minor rule violations such as tardiness. One Chicago student's lawyer says that her client was kicked out for posting "let's go smoke" on Facebook, according to a DNAinfo article.

It's not just the children who suffer from charter schools' bad policies. Students who are expelled or suspended are far more likely to drop out of school and are eight times more likely to end up incarcerated than their peers.

In New Orleans, a city that also struggles with crime and that enrolls more students in charter schools per capita than any other city, the former schools superintendent links a high crime rate to charter expulsions. When charter schools push students out on the streets, the streets will too often claim our students.

Thankfully, just this month, the federal government issued recommendations on school discipline that would keep more students in school. The government's report contains the kind of proposals for reform — innovative and data-driven — that charters say they favor.

One approach touted by the feds focuses on preventing rule breaking before it starts. For example, schools identify "blind spots" — places in the building where there are no teachers — and add staff there. Schools also build on students' strengths — offering pizza lunches for good behavior — while providing school-based consequences for misbehavior. Another promising approach uses "restorative justice" to solve disputes. A facilitator sits down in a room with kids and leads a discussion in which they accept responsibility for their actions. The goal is to repair harm — a student who defaced a hallway would paint it, for instance. These forms of school discipline create safe schools while also ensuring that students stay in the classroom and off the streets.

By throwing its support behind the charter movement, the Chicago business community unintentionally endorsed dangerous discipline polices. Business leaders have an opportunity to right this wrong by demanding that charter schools adopt the federal government's recommendations.

- Sheila Bedi is an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.

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