Yes, I've Been Hit by Students, But I Still Believe Suspensions and Expulsions Are Not the Answer

Dec 17, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Betsy DeVos wants to end the Obama-era discipline guidance that addresses the over-suspension and expulsion of students of color. Betsy DeVos is wrong. And I say that as a special educator serving high-need students, who has sometimes even been beaten up by my students. As teachers, we have tried to get Betsy DeVos to listen. A group of Leading Educator Ambassadors for Equity, myself included, wrote to Secretary DeVos asking her not to remove the guidelines about school discipline because of the civil rights issues involved. I was particularly concerned because those guidelines also protect the students I work with, who have special needs. The secretary has not replied. In that absence of leadership, we must take the conversation to the public. Let's talk the bigger picture. Congress has just given billions in tax cuts to the richest 1 percent in the history of our country, but it has never bothered to fully fund the decades-old law that ensures children with disabilities receive a proper education (the law is called IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The federal government has never given the assistance promised to the school districts. This means school districts don't have the money to hire adequate staff—teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses—to handle all the students with special needs. Instead we pay for it in the form of teacher attrition and medical bills from injuries. Worse, [pullquote]we are paying the highest price of all, the lifetime costs to our students, when we don’t help them address their behavioral challenges.[/pullquote] For those of you who think a kid with behavior issues should be kicked out of school, I ask you to ponder this: When you leave school you enter general society. Do you want our youth entering society without the skills to control their behavior? What is the benefit in that? The only people cheering on that idea are the owners of private prisons and the elected officials they have bought. Keeping that violent kid in school means there is a chance to teach them better behavior. If we do not do this while they are young and teachable, then what life are we condemning them to? I'll tell you. If that kid has the disabilities and needs that my students have, then they will live in an institution or a lock-down group home. They will have little to no freedom. They will not have jobs. We will pay for every single thing they do and for every person in their life who has to support them. If that kid is a general education student, suspensions and expulsions can mean missing too much school to graduate. The punishments can lead to a high dropout rate. So that student, who clearly needed our support, is now condemned to a probable life of poverty. Even military service will be out of their reach unless they can get a GED. Many will end up in juvenile detention or jail. On average, jail costs us $31,000 or more for an inmate each year. In some states that can rise to $60,000 a year per inmate. And it’s all taxpayer money. Is it not cheaper to spend $100,000 a year on a counselor and a behavior specialist who can help 50 kids, rather than spend $31,000 a year, 50 times over (which equals more than $1.5 million a year) for each of those kids in jail or juvenile detention? You don't have to be a STEM teacher to see that money spent to address behavior in childhood is a fraction of what will be spent on the consequences of unaddressed behavior problems in adulthood.

District Leaders Should Be Marching in the Streets

School board members and superintendents should be marching in the streets to demand the full funding of IDEA. Instead, too many of them have forgotten they are the champions of the children and have become Ye Who Kill by a Thousand Tiny Budget Cuts. If you know people who work with children with disabilities in your district are being hurt because there simply is not enough staff to keep them safe, then you must step to the higher ground. You must. Yes, you will take some heat. I guarantee you though, heat for a good fight is honorable. Those burn marks will show the world you stood up for the children in your care. Your teachers will stand with you. I will stand with you. Do you hear that? I have shared my stories of being assaulted. I did not flinch when I shared them. I did not hold my punches. Champions don’t hold their punches when their work is to better the world for their kids. But if we don’t have the training and staff to manage these kids, then the district is expelling the students. We must stop this. If the teacher who has been beaten to the ground is saying, “Do not expel these children,” then you must listen. It is teachers like me—many smaller, most are women—who are taking the punches. We deserve to be the leaders in this conversation.

It’s Time To Speak Up, For Ourselves and Our Students

When I told my story of being beaten by my students, I quickly had hundreds of messages from teachers, paraeducators and some health care workers sharing stories from their own careers. The stories I heard were not far from the same stories you would hear at a shelter for battered women. Assault, after assault, after assault, each one breaking off another little piece of my heart. I have no shame in the tears I shed reading your stories because I am mourning for how many times I heard, “I had to quit teaching,” because of the physical abuse. And even worse, how many of you were told to be quiet because it is what you signed on for. To every paraeducator who got notice their hours were being cut and to keep insurance meant losing another fifth of your paycheck, I get on my hands and knees and thank you because not only are you the punching bag in the classroom, you are the punching bag of the budget cutters as well. I am ashamed when I see the job you do and know that your paycheck is a fraction of mine. [pullquote]I once had a coworker paraeducator who had his finger bitten off. He returned to work.[/pullquote] He didn’t give up on those kids. That’s badass. You are all badass. To the nurses and mental health care workers, I hear you loud and clear. “That’s part of the job” is not cutting it for you either. Your cuts in staffing have left you vulnerable, too. Sure, nurses get hit. They get hit because there is no staff there to keep them from getting hit. I have one ask for all of you, fellow badasses in the struggle. Take a minute this week to call Betsy DeVos and tell her not to rescind the Obama-era guidance on discipline. Demand funding for IDEA. Show your elected officials the cost of investing in a paraeducator now is a lot cheaper than paying for jail for a lifetime.

Brett Bigham

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to visit cultural landmarks and social events. The books are currently available in 10 countries and four languages. He is president of ORSTOY, the Oregon chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and serves on the boards of Oregon Safe Schools and Clubfunder.Org.

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