Our education system bullies our kids, too
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I commend Melania Trump for her plan to tackle our nation’s growing cyber bullying epidemic, but I wonder if she realizes the extent of the bullying happening offline. 

It happens in our schools and not only on the playgrounds. Our education system bullies our kids — particularly children in poor, predominantly Black school districts — through harsh, bureaucratic disciplinary policies that arbitrarily push them out of school and into the criminal justice system.

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The most egregious miscarriages of justice our school systems inflict on children are zero tolerance policies. These policies empower teachers to suspend students for first-time offenses for demonstrating “willful disobedience” without defining the term. I know a 5 year-old student who was suspended for stealing a chapstick off a craft table. Does it make sense to take a kid out of school and label him a thief? 

Suspensions and expulsions for these vague “offenses” are applied disproportionately to poor, Black students. In Louisiana, schools are twice as likely to suspend Black students as they are white students for the same offenses. We need our education administrators to use suspension and expulsion judiciously and only as last resorts, not as a default punishment for misbehavior.

School districts have stepped up security measures by militarizing our schools, filling them with metal detectors, police and security officers. It sends a terrible message. 

Most of these children are there to learn, but feel like they are in prison. It also results in children being ushered into the criminal justice system for minor offenses — the likes of which were handled in the principal’s office when I was in school.

Research shows these harsh, overreaching policies not only do not keep our schools safe, but actually depreciate the life outcomes of students. Research compiled by the American Psychological Association finds that suspensions and expulsions lead to a greater likelihood of future behavior problems, academic difficulty and to students detaching from school and dropping out.

I hope the new administration and the new secretary of education will look for ways to reform the system so that children are encouraged to be better students rather than continue to bully them out of the school and into jail.

Instead of zero tolerance policies, we should look at study-proven methods of conflict resolution between students, teachers and parents. If children are suffering from challenges at home or sometimes absent parenting, schools need ways to intervene and help rather than simply writing off students and sending them to juvenile detention.

At-risk children are bombarded with negative messages telling them they will never amount to anything. 

It is critical that they learn what it feels like to be praised when they are behaving and being the best students they can be. This can be done with policies that upend heavy handed discipline policies and replace them with formalized benchmarks for positive reinforcement as well while letting kids be kids.

Bullying has no place in our schools or communities, whether by students, parents or teachers. I hope that Melania Trump will work hard to teach America about the right ways to treat each other and bring all of us, including education policymakers, together to ensure ALL children are given a fair shot at reaching their potential.

Gina Womack is the president of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated children (FFLIC) where she works hard to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, a problem which is more acute in Louisiana than any other state in the union.


 The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.