CINCINNATI – Dianne Piché volunteered in the library at her young son's school and watched as a second-grader loudly cursed and defied her teacher, who would have been within her rights to suspend the little girl.
Instead, the teacher sent her to a time-out area and spent the rest of the year working closely with the girl, encouraging her to write, rarely sending the girl to the principal let alone banishing her from the building.
For Valentine's Day, the teacher asked her students to write a Valentine to anyone they chose.
"The girl wrote to her father, 'Dear Dad, I love you. Please stop fighting with other people in jail because I want you to come home and I miss you,'" Piché said.
At the end of the school year, the girl read her own poetry at an optional event, and her mother thanked the teacher for all she had done. The girl moved on to take accelerated classes, Piché said.
It's a story that Piché, now senior counsel and director of education programs at The Leadership Conference in Washington, remembers many years later as she works to break what has become known as the "schools to prison pipeline."
Exhaustive research has shown that the more a child is suspended, the lower that child's chance of graduating from high school and the higher his chance of committing a crime and being jailed.
Once a minor is jailed and released, the chances he drops out from high school within a year are two out of three.
The problem is far worse for minority communities than for white students.
A recent study found that 28.3 percent of black males were suspended in middle school at least once, which is almost double the overall 14.7 percent rate of suspensions of males. White males (10 percent) and Asian American boys (6 percent) were below average, while male Hispanics (16.3 percent) and Native Americans (15.9 percent) were also above average. That means that African American males are nearly three times as likely as white males to be suspended and almost five times as likely as Asian Americans.
In every racial category, girls were suspended at far lower rates.
"It is one of these issues that if we don't solve in a big way we will never get to these lofty career and college goals," Piché said. "One of the major ways we prevent our children from getting to that finish line of graduating high school and going on to careers or undergraduate work is by telling them they are not wanted in this building, and we do that repeatedly."
Piché participated in a panel discussion about the schools to prison pipeline and ways to break it at the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum, being held at Duke Energy Convention Center downtown.
She was joined by Joseph Bishop, executive director of Opportunity Action outside of Washington, and Robert Vidana, who, as community school coordinator at John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles, is on the front lines of reform.
Fremont has instituted a host of reforms under the umbrella of restorative justice, including a ban on sending kids to the principal for defiance, sending first-time offenders to an anger management class, convening a "breaking the prisons pipeline" work group to discuss disciplinary cases and generally engaging kids with behavioral problems rather than sending them away.
The school made all 200 of its teachers reapply for their jobs, and the half that bought into reforms stuck around, he said. "No one is there because it's easy and no one is there because they don't want to be."
"It's ground zero if you're into solving equity problems," Vidana said. Nearly all of Fremont's students – 96 percent – are from low-income families and are 100 percent non-white. Before reforms were instituted, the school issued 150 or more suspensions a year. Half the kids dropped out.
This year, no students have been suspended and 70 percent are graduating. State and ACT scores are on the rise.
Cincinnati Public Schools has instituted its own set of reforms, including suspensions being served within the district's community learning centers, where students and their families can also receive medical and psychiatric care.
Underscoring Vidana's message that reforms aren't easy, Dr. Leo Casey, executive director of The Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, warned that schools were headed for trouble.
"Entities like the U.S. Department of Education have a habit of declaring and leaving – there is a problem that you need to fix," Casey said. "Always moving responsibility to the lowest level, they end up telling schools and teachers it's your responsibility to fix this and, by the way, we're not going to give you the tools to do this.
"If all we do at this point is say you can't suspend and expel, in four years we're going to be in the same place. We have to figure out how to give educators the resources that they need," he said.
Piché said the federal government's role should be limited to "shine a spotlight to identify the worst actors and to provide the carrots and sticks," adding, "I'm very sympathetic to what
happens in these schools, and there are alternatives, but it's not the federal government's responsibility. It's individual state's responsibilities, and many have chosen to delegate it to school districts, which is not very efficient."
Mary Kingston-Roche, public policy manager at Coalition for Community Schools, said the fix is long term. "It's both an urgent crisis but also something so hard to address and to make people feel that sense of urgency."