Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bullies, suicides and suspensions

Massachusetts Rep. Alice Wolf, D-25th Middlesex, has introduced legislation that would rein in the out-of-control rate of school suspensions. A a hearing on the proposed bill will take place this Tuesday, 6 pm., at the Springfield Science and Technology High School, 1250 State St.

The purpose of the hearing, sponsored by the Graduation and Drop-Out Prevention and Recovery Commission, is to solicit information on the effect of school suspensions, and to build support for Wolf's bill, "An Act to help students stay in school."

Some bullets from the hearing fact sheet:
  • Many Massachusetts school districts exclude students from school for non-violent misconduct that does not threaten student and school staff safety.
  • African-American students are six times more likely to be excluded, often for the same infractions that bring lesser discipline for non-minority kids.
  • Last year, 64,000 kids were excluded from school in Massachusetts, with 4,200 exclusions of longer than ten days. Many exclusions go unreported.
  • School exclusion is strongly linked to students dropping out of school.
The Stay in School Act would limit school suspensions to 90 school days in most cases, and limit suspensions to 10 days unless students assault staff, bring weapons to school, deal drugs or engage in other felonious behavior. It would also require a written explanation of the suspension, and allow parents the right to appeal.

The timing of this hearing in Springfield couldn't be more ironic. On April 6, Springfield student Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hung himself in response to bullying in school. He was eleven years old. Ten days later, another eleven year old Georgia boy hung himself for the same reasons. Bullying is serious business and the cruelty that some children endure produces lifelong scars. Yet are suspensions the best answer to this problem?

Charles M. Blow at the NYTImes wrote a sad and chilling column this week about the effect of homophobic bullying on children, with statistics to break your heart. The main focus of bullies seems to be boys who are perceived as "gay"-- that is, kids who enjoy music, like to read, like to dance or who otherwise don't fit the lowest common denominator of masculinity, and kids who are bullied for their appearance.

These realities have not stopped the Massachusetts House, however, from taking away 40% of the funds earmarked for suicide prevention programs for gay and lesbian youth in next year's budget.

Every parent in Springfield needs to have a conversation with their kids about the rights of all children to be who they are and look the way they look. Every school in Springfield needs to have the same conversation. Unless we can find a way to increase tolerance among our children and ourselves, more tragedies are just around the corner.

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