As President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIvanka Trump vows ‘never again’ on Holocaust Remembrance Day Feehery: Trump: Republicans' FDR? Press: Hillary's doomed bid MORE has made sweeping generalizations about violence in Chicago, he has overlooked key issues within the city.
It is undeniable that gun violence in Chicago has reached a crisis point, including the recent tragic deaths of three children. At the same time, Chicago’s schools are at the center of a pitched battle between Governor Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school board. After Governor Rauner vetoed a bailout of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the district announced $46 million in cuts to schools’ budgets and then sued the state over discriminatory funding.
As an attorney who represents parents and students in education cases, I meet regularly with young people facing suspension and expulsion. Many are involved in the juvenile justice system.
The refrain is often the same.
School started as a place they felt successful and safe. But over time, they struggled to learn to read, became frustrated, and began to act out. Rather than providing more support, their school began to suspend them—punishing them for minor misbehaviors by taking away learning opportunities.
Predictably, these students become increasingly disengaged in their academics. School, like so many other aspects of their lives, was no longer a safe place. Losing hope in the future, they sought out other places where they could be accepted and feel some success. They turned to the streets and to negative peer influences.
My clients’ experiences are supported by the data. In 2016, only one out of four CPS students was reading at grade level. The statistics are worse for low-income neighborhoods, where 43 schools serving low-income students reported only five percent of students proficient in academic basics.
Why should we expect our young people to place their hopes for the future on schools that are not meeting their needs?
Indeed, poor reading predicts juvenile justice system involvement. A U.S. Department of Education study of incarcerated youth found that 57 percent possessed only rudimentary reading skills. Children with learning disabilities and low academic achievement are three times more likely to join a gang.
A childhood background of trauma enhances the likelihood of school failure. Many students from neighborhoods high in violence come to school traumatized by what they witness in their daily lives. Constantly in “fight or flight” mode, they may act inappropriately in response to even minor triggers. Traumatized students are more likely to have poor attendance as well as academic and behavioral problems. Not surprisingly, most youth arrested for delinquent behavior have experienced trauma.
The recent outbreak in violence makes it even more imperative that our schools are equipped to address students’ social and emotional needs. Yet, the recent cuts announced will exacerbate the problem of under-funded schools.
Programs at risk from the cuts include special education services, social and emotional learning programs and restorative justice programs, each of which is already insufficiently funded. CPS’ lawsuit blames the state for these cuts, but CPS is not off the hook. Four years ago, the city closed 50 schools, mostly in Chicago’s South and West sides, to save money. Yet, money from the sale of closed schools went into a capital fund that predominantly benefited schools that serve white, middle-class students.
These problems are too big to be addressed by finger pointing. Rather, addressing the root causes of this violence outbreak requires a sustained federal, state and local investment to support youth in Chicago’s South and West sides. We must adequately fund our schools, particularly those that serve low-income children. We must train teachers on research-based methods to support struggling readers and ensure schools have the capacity to implement trauma-informed practices. We must support teachers who are on the front lines of supporting our most vulnerable children.
To be sure, schools are not the only aspects of the South and West sides that have been neglected for far too long. Community mental health services and community-based violence intervention programs, like after-school programs and mentoring, are woefully under-resourced. We need investments in those programs too so that our schools can focus on their core job of educating young people.
But we cannot forget the importance of education. Giving young people a positive path to success is the best way to ensure we keep them off the streets and out of trouble.
Miranda Johnson is Associate Director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and a Public Voices Fellow. She supervises law students in Loyola’s Civitas ChildLaw Clinic and the Stand Up for Each Other Chicago (SUFEO) suspension advocacy project.
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