What ultimately shapes children and adults, regardless of genetics, is the environment in which they are immersed in their formative years. Family environments help mold our children into who they become in adulthood. But society plays as much, if not a greater role, in forming who our children become. That society includes our nation’s public schools, not only playing integral roles in fostering talents, but also in building our children’s self-worth.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoThis is why how schools handle — and mishandle — discipline is so important. What we adults in school do can either be the right answer or the wrong solution to shaping children into the people they become.

When one student is causing a classroom disruption, the traditional way to address the issue has been removal – whether the removal is for five minutes, five days or permanently. Separating the “good” students and the “bad” ones has always seemed the fair, judicious approach. On an individual level this form of discipline may seem necessary to preserve the educational experience for others. Whether it is or not in reality is a different matter entirely.

If all children come from homes that implement a cause-and-effect approach to discipline, removal may be the right answer. Maybe. If all children are reading at grade level and aren’t struggling with learning, removal may be the right answer. Again, maybe. Unfortunately, not every child come from such homes or are reading at grade level. For these students, removal from education is simply another form of abandonment and leads to the phenomenon called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The numbers represent a modern-day segregation. An estimated 40 percent of all students that are expelled from U.S. schools are black, making black children over three times more likely to face suspension than their white peers. Black and Latino children account for 70 percent of all in-school arrests. Consider the strong correlation between school discipline and what happens when children become adults out of school: Sixty-one percent of the incarcerated population are black or Latino – despite the fact that these groups only represent 30 percent of the U.S. population. Nearly 68 percent of all men in federal prison never earned a high school diploma. The fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world is no surprise and the road to lockup starts in the school systems.

Sally Powalski, who has spent 10 years working in juvenile jails and prisons in Indiana, took some time two years ago to describe what she sees every day: Young men who don’t expect to improve academically or economically, and therefore, no motivation (or education) to escape the school-to-prison pipeline. Wrote Sally:.“They have been given the message for several years that they are not allowed in regular school programs, are not considered appropriate for sports teams, and have had their backs turned on them… Why should they strive for more than a life of crime?”

Sally is right. Children are products of their environments and the expectations placed on them. Parents on a first-name basis with law enforcement officials certainly influence the behavior, but so do teachers and school leaders with preconceived negative expectations who create environments of failure. As educators, we are learning more and more about how to recognize the signs of textbook learning disabilities such as dyslexia. But what about the indirect impact that factors like poverty, abuse, neglect or simply living in the wrong neighborhood have on a student’s ability to learn? Where are the intervention programs that keep these students on academic track without removing them from classrooms?

“Zero tolerance” and “no excuses” may sound like the best ways to handle all offenses in public schools. But they really do disservice to students. Not every infraction is a black and white issue and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled “disruptions” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for other, “better” students. I suppose there is an argument to be made for protecting straight-and-narrow students from the sins of others. But at what cost?

High profile instances of school violence in recent years have led to a higher presence of law enforcement officers in public schools, often politely labeled as “resource officers” or a similarly vague term. Of course the presence of guns and other immediate dangerous items in schools are cause for arrest, or at least temporary removal of the student. But as the American Civil Liberties Union reports, children as young as five throwing tantrums have been removed in handcuffs by these officers. Rather than addressing the heart of the individual problems, it is easier for public schools to weed out troublesome students under the umbrella of protecting the greater good. Convenience triumphs over finding actual solutions.

People who fall outside this fringe group of perceived misfits may wonder why the school-to-prison pipeline should matter to them. Outside of caring about the quality of life for other individuals, it matters in more tangible ways. Each federal prisoner costs taxpayers $28,284 per year, which is about $77 per day. That’s a measurable cost. What isn’t measurable is the indirect impact those incarcerations have on the economy in terms of those prisoners not contributing to the work force.

So what can be done to help these students, and really the common good? Schools are the first line of defense against this early form of pigeonholing, but the communities within them — teachers, school leaders, even families — need to embrace the concept. Students with discipline problems are individuals that need customized learning experiences to succeed academically, in the years ahead.