School expulsions report highlights plight of disadvantaged youth

“Every year several hundred children are expelled from government schools [in Victoria] … A disproportionate number of expelled children have a disability, are in out of home care, or identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Some come from backgrounds of significant trauma. Some are only five or six years old.”

The opening lines of Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass’ report into government school expulsions is cause for concern.

The report, released in August, goes on to note a number of disturbing yet sadly predictable statistics. Aboriginal children and children from foster care backgrounds are two to three times more likely to be expelled than other students. Roughly 30 percent of expelled students have some form of disability or mental illness.

While 278 students were formally expelled in 2016, the report states that there were potentially thousands more students who were “informally expelled” – i.e., they felt compelled to leave through pressure or systematic disengagement.

At some schools, students are expelled for minor things such as smoking pot during a lunch break. In some cases, schools fail to take into consideration a student’s circumstances. The report cites an “early primary school student who was expelled for hitting an assistant principal. At the time of this incident, the school was aware of significant upheaval in the child’s life including Department of Health and Human Services’ involvement after her mother tried to relinquish care to her grandmother”.

Expulsions were frequently used to deal with children “put in the too hard basket”, such as one child who was expelled from her primary school after having been there only two weeks. The school simply decided it could not help the student because “she has demonstrated that … her distrust of adults will prevent establishing a workable relationship”.

Expelling a kid isn’t going to increase their trust in adults; it is more likely to leave them increasingly marginalised and alienated. There is a reason why the majority of people in the juvenile justice system have either been suspended or expelled at some point during their schooling.

Once expelled, students often spend a long time out of school before returning to another, only to be further behind in and more alienated from their education then they were at their previous school.

Systemic disadvantage needs to be combated, greater resources need to be provided to assist young people with trauma, and class sizes need to be reduced in order to enable teachers to handle situations as they occur. Given the enormous pressures on teachers, it is hardly surprising that they often resort to discipline and remove students from school rather than find the time to help the young people involved.

The way marginalised young people are treated as emerging criminals rather than kids needing help lays out a path for them for the rest of their lives. As the mother of an expelled six-year-old noted after having bent over backwards to get her kid back into a school: “He’s got us in his corner but other kids don’t have that and where do they end up? Where are those kids? I know where they are, they’re not at school, they slip through the cracks, they end up in the justice system”.