Promoting Academic Achievement and Safe Schools, by Rita Thompson

As an African-American and the proud daughter of a woman who was a leader in the New York civil rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s, I am very sensitive to the issue of discrimination. However, I disagree with the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s knee-jerk reaction to events in Decatur, Illinois. Officials there applied a zero-tolerance policy against school violence, where seven black students were expelled for engaging in mob violence last year.

A wiser move for the Reverend Jackson would have been to inquire if the expelled students were receiving a high-quality education. A direct correlation exists between the quality of education and student behavior.

Many expelled students have less-than-stellar academic records. A study conducted by the Educational Testing Services found students with discipline problems have lower test scores. Another study, conducted by the Center for the Study of Prevention of Violence in Boulder, Colorado, showed that a student’s ability for success could increase with the proper prevention.

The Center also reported that restructuring schools to improve teaching and learning improves student behavior and reduces incidences of discipline referrals. The study further showed that expelling or removing students from their regular schools and putting them in an alternative education program is a successful intervention model. In the alternative program, they participate in behavior counseling and strong academic services.

Combining clear expectations and meaningful consequences in an effort to combat unacceptable behavior, along with the continued support of parents and school staff in providing a strong academic program, equals a successful equation for students with behavioral problems.

According to the National School Boards Association, a zero-tolerance policy toward school violence mandates pre-determined consequences or punishment for specific offenses, regardless of the circumstance or disciplinary history of the student involved. In my capacity as an elected member of the Fairfax County School Board in Northern Virginia, I’ve had many conversations with parents and students, so I know that the zero-tolerance policy has brought great comfort to them.

It is widely agreed that school discipline problems have a negative impact on academic achievement. Legislators, school board members and administrators are taking great strides to become proactive; they are anticipating and monitoring behavioral problems and preventing violence in our schools.

Does a zero-tolerance policy toward school violence add up? Yes. Many states report success in improving the school environment, particularly in drug and gun cases.

An example of a successful program is North Carolina’s “School Violence: Let’s Get It Out of our Systems.” Between 1997 and 1999, state and local officials assumed a position of zero tolerance, passing legislation that imposed stiff legal consequences for possession of firearms on school grounds.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that required school districts to develop plans and provide direction to school-level administrators. As a result, state schools reported only 163 firearms cases during the 1996-1997 school year, down from 448 firearm cases during 1993-94. Although they acknowledge this figure is still too high, it reflects a policy that works.

A zero-tolerance policy works in keeping violence off the school property, but that will not unearth the root cause of antisocial behavior.

There is also the need for schools, parents, local organizations and the community as a whole to nurture their young so they feel less inclined to resort to violence. This is where community leaders like the Reverend Jackson could be most helpful. We need church and community leaders who are willing to meet with the parents of violent students to change current behavior and work toward setting an agenda that prevents future outbreaks.

I agree with Vincent L. Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, who said we must be honest and fair; if a mistake is made or a reaction is too severe, we should admit it and work to correct it. However, we should not apologize for upholding our communities’ expectations for safe, orderly and drug-free schools.

Mr. Ferrandino has the right idea. Let’s correct our mistakes and move on. But I think the Reverend Jesse Jackson was misguided in his efforts. He is needed, and he can be a tremendous support in building a safer school environment for all. The real issue is not discrimination, but how to ensure that every student gets a quality education.

The only way to guarantee a successful educational equation is to begin with a safe environment.

(Rita Thompson is a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and national media spokesman for Concerned Women for America. She also serves on the Fairfax County School Board in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.