It is a concept that has been taking hold slowly among parents, students and activists: dignity in public schools. This month, the Dignity in Schools Campaign launched its website – www.dignityinschools.org – and the collective of organizations, including NESRI, that have come together to form this campaign have begun a public conversation about this simple but profound idea.
What do we mean by dignity?
Dignity is a core human rights concept that simply means that every person in society has value and as a result has basic rights that allow them not only to survive but to develop and express their full potential. To violate someone’s dignity is to treat them as if they did not have human value, which includes any deprivation of fundamental human rights – such as the right to education.
Why do we need to talk about dignity in public schools?
We need to talk about dignity in public schools because across the country children from impoverished communities are prevented from learning, and therefore realizing their right to education, because they face mistreatment and abuse in the classroom, hallways and in unjust disciplinary processes. This mistreatment and abuse is documented in NESRI’s report, Deprived of Dignity: Degrading Treatment and Abusive Discipline in New York City and Los Angeles Public Schools. In the classroom, students we interviewed reported that teachers call them stupid and tell them they cannot learn. In disciplinary policies, students are repeatedly suspended and excluded from learning for long periods of time for minor misbehavior, such as being late or arguing with another student. These punitive and degrading policies result in many students being pushed so far behind that they are pushed out of school all together. Safety officers and police are also intervening in minor disciplinary issues, often using police tactics such as slamming students against walls and spraying mace to disperse bystanders. In these schools, discipline has become an excuse for abuse, and the notion of using discipline as a means to teach appropriate behavior and an opportunity for learning has been abandoned. The reason for degraded and abusive environments cannot be ascribed to individual attributes of specific teachers or educators. The overwhelming majority of teachers and educators enter their professions with optimism and desire to help young people learn and develop. But teachers and educators also face difficult environments themselves. Classrooms are overcrowded and schools are under-resourced. Guidance counselors are too few and overloaded. Therapists to support students with special needs are also overwhelmed. Teachers do not receive adequate support in classroom management while at the same time facing some of the most difficult conditions in the classroom. Add to this, deteriorating and overcrowded buildings where students are bumping into each other just to get from one class to another, and it is a recipe for disaster. Teachers often say, you don understand! But we do. Everyone trapped in these environments suffers.
What can we do to ensure that every child learns in an environment that protects human dignity?
We can safeguard every child’s dignity and education. We must address the deep inequities in resources which lead to severe overcrowding, less experienced teachers in schools serving impoverished communities, and less money for books, technology and other basic materials. But we also must shift the culture in the schools in order to establish wholly different relationships between teachers and students. In schools across the country, educators are embracing alternatives to punitive, zero-tolerance discipline, and instead embracing preventive and proactive approaches to discipline. Policies such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) and restorative justice are being implemented to change the culture and relationships in growing numbers of schools.
What is the Dignity in Schools Campaign?
The Dignity in Schools Campaign is bringing together policy advocates, parent and student organizers, educators and lawyers to promote these alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal. The DSC organizes a variety of activities including organizing teleconference calls that bring advocates together from around the country to engage in discussion and debate, planning a national working conference on pushout and human rights to take place in Chicago in 2009, and developing action strategies to promote Positive Behavior Intervention and Support as one of several successful models for positive school discipline, including building support for pending federal legislation.
Visit the campaign’s new website to access a searchable database of research on pushout and positive alternatives, as well specific resources for youth, parents and educators, and more information about the campaign’s active projects.