Public schools across the country too often rely on harsh disciplinary measures. These policies are marked by an in-school police presence, high rates of arrest and suspension, and ineffectiveness. Unduly punitive strategies harm students, exacerbate inequality along the lines of race and disability, and lead to increased dropout rates as well as entanglements with the criminal justice system.  Helping to break this pattern, also known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” has become part of our pro bono efforts thanks to Kate Terenzi, who just completed a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship sponsored by Proskauer. According to Kate, a greater emphasis on mental health services and an increase in trained guidance counselors and social workers as well as a new approach to discipline are key to improving our public schools.

Working at The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), Kate has partnered with youth-led organizations on various policy initiatives and community organizing campaigns, and has represented young people facing school suspensions. At Proskauer, she has conducted trainings and served as a mentor and supervisor, enabling our lawyers to make a real difference in school suspension hearings.  Even when a suspension cannot be avoided, an attorney may be able to help reduce its duration or secure other benefits, such as help for a learning disability, or a transfer to a school that is better-suited to the student. 

The harmful effects of school suspensions are well-established. Studies have shown that rather than deterring bad behavior, broadly applied school suspension only alienates students, making them less likely to graduate and more likely to be arrested. “11 Million Days Lost” is the title of a report issued last week by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and the ACLU of Southern California based on information from “nearly every public school in the nation” which reveals that there were a staggering 11 million days of school lost to suspension in the 2015-16 school year across the U.S. Poignantly, the report found gross disparities in how public schools suspend students: Black students lost 66 days of instruction per 100 students as compared to only 14 days for White students. Similarly, students with disabilities lost 44 days per 100 students as compared to 20 days for students without disabilities.

The vast majority of students in school suspension hearings are unrepresented and, as with so many other issues, increased pro bono efforts alone are not enough to address the underlying problem. Kate advocates for schools to place a greater emphasis on mental health services and increase the number of trained guidance counselors and social workers.   It’s also time, she argues, for schools to turn away from policies based on “zero tolerance,” and embrace instead restorative justice practices. This approach favors dialogue between students and teachers that “emphasizes bringing together everyone affected by wrongdoing to address needs and responsibilities, and to heal the harm to relationships as much as possible,” according to an implementation guide published by the Oakland, California Unified School District. In Oakland (and other cities) the new strategy appears to be working. After summarizing reports from several school districts, a policy brief produced by CPD and Urban Youth Collaborative concluded: “Restorative practices have effectively improved school climate and reduced disruptive behavior.”

There is no question that public education is central to a free and just society. As Horace Mann once wrote education is, “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”  When public schools, however, become a vehicle of injustice – with unfairly harsh disciplinary practices – the legal community should not sit by quietly.