We cannot have effective social emotional learning is an atmosphere of fear, in an ethos of rejection, in a school acting like a law enforcement agency. Yet, in our effort to make schools safe, we have made them appear less safe. In our striving to minimize disruptions to learning, schools have become fundamentally disruptive. In our desire to end racism, schools have become a mechanism to preserve the caste system in America.
On behalf of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK), I propose that we change this. We change this in two ways. First, by getting uniformed, armed police officers out of schools. School resource officers are, at their base, emblems of power. Their uniforms, their weapons, their power of arrest all broadcast that they are there to create fear. The data is clear that school-based arrests escalate when SROs are in schools. Certainly, many students gravitate to the SRO. But, many students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities, have histories with police that lead them to be traumatized when in their presence. The damage done to these students by having police in schools is severe. The benefit of having SROs in school is minimal. The cost is high.
Second, we need to end exclusionary discipline, that is, expulsions and out-of-school suspensions. Certainly, there are students who need to be removed temporarily from the general education classroom to permit other students to learn. By and large, these students do not feel like they belong. They feel alienated, powerless, alone, and out-of-control. By throwing them out of school, we are reinforcing that alienation and powerlessness. We are telling them that they are unworthy. It is hard to imagine a more egregious mechanism of caste system enforcement.
There are certainly students who do not fit easily into the routinized structure of public school. Instead of discarding these students through school-based arrests and throwing them out of school or terrorizing them by having a uniformed officer wandering the halls, we have the obligation, indeed the opportunity, to work with them, to help them, maybe to turn them around. The critical element of both of these proposals is the creation of comprehensive clinical settings in each school. Such a setting would have strong special education aimed at challenging students to manifest their gifts, intense counseling and psychological support, family involvement and education, a variety of related services, and ample opportunities for physical activity. Some schools have settings like this, but most do not. Students who would otherwise be suspended or expelled or arrested would be placed in such a setting and carefully evaluated. They would then have goals set, in consultation with parents, and would remain in the setting until they master their goals, with provision for gradual reentry into the general education setting.
There is no doubt that this is an expensive proposal. We would, therefore, recommend that we start it as a pilot program in a few school districts, to permit an effective design of the therapeutic interventions, to prove the concept, and to better assess the overall costs of such a program. We would want to target districts like Waterbury to be in the pilot program.
So, in brief, we would eliminate SROs, eliminate exclusionary discipline, and ban school- based arrests, except for felonies, and create a comprehensive therapeutic setting in schools in a few designated districts. The legislation would need to carry ample funding to make this work. And we would mandate an evaluation structure so that we can measure whether and how well this approach works.
I suggest that this approach would do a great deal to create effective social emotional learning.