Credit: Derek Mindler

Look after hidden out-of-school children in high income countries as schools reopen

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Europe is one of the worst hit regions by COVID-19. Schools remain closed in many countries. New closures have been announced in the last few days across France, and many schools are only partially open in Germany, Ireland, Italy and Portugal. It may be assumed that, relative to other countries, high-income countries will be quick to bounce back. But we should not forget that there were already many hidden out-of-school children in those countries before the pandemic.

Many may have been on school registers but were spending large amounts of time outside school. They may have been expelled or suspended, with some even encouraged to un-enrol so as to keep school records rosy. If we think that some children’s behavioural issues may have been problematic before we confined them inside for many months with just screen to stare at all day, we may find a nasty surprise when the world gets back to normal. Preparing to support this ‘lockdown generation’ and the depression many of them have been suffering these past months means looking into providing relevant additional education and counselling services. Zero-tolerance policies may seem suitable off the cuff reactions, but will only exacerbate the problem.

As in any country, some categories of students are disproportionally more likely to be temporarily or permanently excluded. According to one estimate in England, for example, students with special needs were over nine times as likely to be permanently excluded as their peers. In 2017/18, they accounted for almost half of the official 411,000 temporary and 8,000 permanent exclusions (5.1% and 0.1% of the student population, respectively). And this does not include the many students who are ‘off-rolled’, encouraged to un-enrol voluntarily to pre-empt formal expulsion. Schools have both leverage and incentive to off-roll. Students avoid a stain on their records and schools avoid including them in disciplinary exclusion statistics. Recent estimates suggest that 1 in 10 students experiences an unexplained exit during secondary education in the country. About 24,000 students, or 4 in 10 of those who experience an unexplained exit, do not return to a publicly funded school.

Expulsion cannot be the right approach

While antisocial behaviour can significantly disrupt learning for all, removing students interferes with their education progression and can perpetuate a failure cycle, a cycle that can culminate in prison. In the United States, through zero-tolerance measures, such as mandatory suspension and law enforcement referral, schools in disadvantaged areas may initiate a so-called school-to-prison pipeline. A discretionary suspension or expulsion nearly triples the likelihood of a student being in contact with juvenile justice in the following year. Adults who as students went to schools with above-average suspension rates experienced 15% to 20% higher incarceration rates. High suspension rates also negatively affect education attainment. Yet learners excluded from school retain their right to education, even in prison.  

Children are funnelled into the juvenile and criminal justice systems for often minor infractions. Such disciplinary policies disproportionately affect black students, who represent 31% of school-related arrests, around twice their share of the student body, and are suspended and expelled three times as often as white students. In a Mississippi school district, children as young as 10 were routinely arrested and taken to jail in handcuffs whenever teachers requested. Some were held for days before being given access to a lawyer. At schools in the district, including special schools, students were suspended and expelled for more than 10 days at 7 times the state rate. Black girls were strongly affected, representing the fastest-growing group in the juvenile justice system. Unlike their white peers, they received out-of-school rather than in-school suspensions. Nationwide, 9.6% of black girls in public primary and secondary schools received out-of-school suspensions in 2013/14, compared with 1.7% of white girls.

The high rate of exclusion of special needs students underscores the need for more proactive behavioural supports to prevent further marginalization and exacerbation of education difficulties. In the United States, one study suggested that 19.5% of students with disabilities had been suspended at least once in the academic year. Nationwide, the out-of-school suspension rate of students with disabilities (10.6%) was twice as high as the national average (5.3%). Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty and neglect. Even when students were extremely disruptive, teachers may have provoked or escalated the behaviour, and school rules may have been inappropriate.

A couple of years ago, the New York Police Department signed a policy limiting police officers’ responsibilities in the New York City public schools – the nation’s largest district, serving 1.1 million students. The initial policy holds hope and was part of an effort that includes hiring 285 new school social workers. It aims to limit out-of-school suspensions and to provide support for educators to practice positive discipline techniques. Only just last week, a story of a five year old boy in another state being put in handcuffs after misbehaving in school was a reminder of the importance of this being rolled out more widely.

We have all been pushed to the limits by the experiences brought on by COVID-19. Children in particular have been penalised enough this past year to need to be punished further.  If we have learnt to value one thing this year, however, it is patience. We must use this to muster up even more support for children with behavioural issues in the coming months.



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