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Break the Pipeline STL march

Hayden Collins, then 6, holds hands with his mom, Carrie Collins, from Charlack, as they march to protest the criminalization of youth of color by schools, police and the juvenile justice system on May 13, 2016. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Public education, at its best, provides equal opportunity to all and represents our national belief that the circumstances of one’s birth should never limit one’s potential. However, Missouri is falling far short of this promise. Our schools are underfunded, our teachers underappreciated, and our students are over-disciplined.

These failings do not affect all students equally. Students of color are 4.4 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, and students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers. During the 2015-16 school year, students with disabilities missed 86,378 school days because of suspensions, and black students missed 178,242 school days, or 488 calendar years. This is unacceptable.

This past legislative session, we saw efforts to change this. I want to see these measures cross the line, and I want to see our legislators prioritize the well-being of all Missouri’s students. We can do better.

We can pass legislation like Rep. Paula Brown’s effort to shorten the overall number of suspension days. Right now students can be suspended for up to 180 days, but the school year is only 186 days. Brown sponsored House Bill 1198, which reduces the maximum suspension length to 90 days. When a student receives a long-term (10-plus day) suspension, districts are still required to provide an equal education, but their efforts often fall short.

Missouri’s students can also be restrained by school officials and secluded from their peers. At a recent hearing, one mother testified about the trauma to her son. He has autism, is largely non-verbal and has been repeatedly subjected to seclusion. This child was unable to tell his mother that he was being regularly forced into a closet at school. Under current law, the school had no obligation to notify her. No one wins when a mother cannot help her child.

Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, has sponsored HB 1023 which would require schools to inform parents within 24 hours when students are subjected to restraint or seclusion. It is common sense that parents should be notified about these practices.

Mackey has also sponsored HB 1069, which eliminates out-of-school suspension for students in kindergarten through third grade except in extreme circumstances. There is growing national support for such policies, and a similar point of legislation was already implemented in St. Louis city. Students learn vital literacy and mathematics skills during kindergarten to third grade, and early childhood suspensions create negative effects on educational achievement. Suspensions during this important stage of childhood development can significantly limit a child’s later educational opportunities. Kids should be kept in class. Period.

HB 42, written by Rep. Ingrid Burnett, should also pass. This bill makes sure that minors know their rights before refusing legal counsel. This would make sure the state is fulfilling its duty to protect children’s rights and would allow for data collection to better understand the experiences of minors in the criminal justice system.

Our current disciplinary system comes at a significant cost to all Missourians. A single suspension yields an increased likelihood of later suspension, lowers likelihood of graduating from high school and increases contact with the criminal justice system throughout one’s lifespan. Well-educated Missourians contribute to our economy and tax pool. Decreasing the size and scope of the criminal justice system saves the taxpayers millions of dollars and immeasurable strife. Addressing the inequities experienced by students of color and students with disabilities is our moral responsibility.

Missouri’s politicians left this inequality to linger for another year. We need to act now, while legislators are planning their agendas for next year’s session. Give your legislator a call and insist they put children first. We need to break the school-to-prison pipeline. Our students are depending on us.

Emily Hanson is the researcher/organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri’s School to Prison Pipeline project. Email: stpp@aclu-mo.org