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Saint Mary’s alumna presents Justice Friday

| Monday, October 12, 2015

This week’s Justice Friday installment was presented by Saint Mary’s alumna Meredith Mersits about her experience working in an urban school environment, in particular, disciplinary action and how it affects the students.

Mersits drew from her experience as a social work major at Saint Mary’s and her time as a special education teacher in a segregated school environment.

“The reason why I’ve called this discussion is because I’ve realized it’s not enough to work in an urban community, but to actually advocate for that community and to embed yourself within the issues of the community so that you can understand the community and the people you are working with.”

Mersits said she thought her background at Saint Mary’s would prepare her for interacting with students. However, Mersits said one doesn’t know what it’s like to interact with these students until they’re in the situation.

“The school I’m working at is 100 percent African American which shows how segregated the community is … I didn’t realize how much of an impact that has on the community.”

Mersits said she’s realized the students in the special education program tend to be the first students the administration expels.

She said this is the wrong way to deal with special education students because they need to be in a positive, consistent environment and around positive people rather than sending these students to rehab facilities or another school where they are pushed further down the line.

“I think schools don’t know what to do, I think it’s a quick fix, and there is not good rationale behind [expelling special needs students]. The students know they did something wrong, but they don’t know how to mend it.”

Another downside of expelling or putting special needs students in in-school suspension (ISS) is it hurts the way they see the school system, especially students who have experienced trauma.

“We can say that we understand [students who have been through trauma] all day, but how do we implement it? We need to ask ourselves as teachers, are we trauma-informed teachers? Do we teach with trauma in the forefront? Often times, schools are punitive. We punish these kids for something they can’t help”

Mersits said ISS hurts students academically, because they fall behind and it is very hard to catch up students with academic needs. Mersits said this can be frustrating for the students.

Mersits said students often act out because expectations are not clear; students should be allowed to think freely, but putative school systems oppose creativity.

“We push this form of free thinking, but when the punitive system comes in, we tell them they can’t do that … If a kid in class knows the answer and blurts it out, we have to punish him for that.” Mersits sad, “I think there is a very fine line between teaching someone to be an upstanding citizen, which is part of the skills you’re supposed to learn in high school, versus punishing them at every chance we get.”

Mersits offered a substitute to suspension such as holding parent conferences before suspension and students being granted access to the proper classwork they are missing while in ISS.

Mersits said teachers need to meet students half way in the classroom and try to set clear expectations so students are encouraged to succeed.

“As teachers we often don’t think, ‘What did I do in that situation and how did I set up that student for success or failure in that situation?’”

Mersits said in education, there is a principle where students are causing trouble because of purposeful defiance versus unclear expectations.

“A kid doesn’t necessarily want to be defiant. I think the cases where students are purposefully defiant are slim, I think most of the times kids don’t know what to do.

“We are not teaching them why they [were punished] so I don’t think it’s beneficial we’re just giving them a consequence; it’s not training their brain to critically realize why they got a demerit.”

Mersits said she has learned how important it is to acknowledge there is bias when dealing with students.

“We have this inherent bias and, even if we say we don’t or don’t want to have it, we see students of privilege [and think] what can we do to help them. But then when it comes to kids who come from rough neighborhoods or family situations we think we need to send them away because that’s what’s best of them. If we were informed trauma teachers, that’s not what we do.”

Justice Friday installments take place every Friday from 12 p.m. to 12:50 p.m. in Conference Room A and B of the Student Center.

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