Research Shows Suspensions Don’t Work

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Cherie MillerFor my family, high school has been a crazy mix of testosterone, education and a bunch of kids with low levels of self-control. Mix in a cadre of frazzled, stressed, budget-deprived administrators and teachers, and you have a recipe for disaster.

One of the craziest school policies we have had to deal with is “in-school” and “out-of-school” suspension. For our seven boys they ranged from benign to just plain stupid. One of our boys, who really struggled to keep up in school, had a week-long illness that put him far behind in school. When he did finally go back, we were just relieved to get him in the classroom and learning again.

The school, however, wasn’t pleased to see him. He’d tucked his shirt in and had a hole near one of his belt loops in his pants. It just so happens that his school has a very strict dress code that earns you a suspension for holes in your jeans. Rather than sitting in a classroom to absorb as much learning he can before he goes out into the world, he earned a day of in-school suspension. It is frustrating as a parent to have administrators focusing on minutia while overlooking the big picture.

Our worst experience with this policy of “suspensions as behavior modification” had to be the day that our THREE high schoolers came home with three-day suspensions. Horrified, I wondered what had they done at school. Formed a gang of three? Pulled knives on the cafeteria ladies? Staged a walkout of the entire school?

Nope. The three of them, typically late getting out the door in the morning, had gone to the second bus stop in our neighborhood, rather than their “assigned” bus stop near our house. They’d missed the bus and were attempting to get to school. Normally that would earn you a gold star. Instead, they got in-school suspension. On the Friday morning before, which in teenage days is like a month, the bus driver had told them not to come to the second bus stop. Technically all three were suspended for “not listening to a school official.” Silly, but they did serve the time, because we’ve taught our kids to respect authority, even misguided authority.

The problem I see as a parent looking at high school is that suspensions don’t work. Yet, suspension is one of the most used practices in the nation’s schools. According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Education study, more than 3.3 million students are suspended from schools each year.

If you’re African American or Latino, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Opportunities Suspended: the Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School, you’re much more likely to be suspended than if you were white.

“This first-ever breakdown of nearly 7,000 districts found that 17 percent of African-American students nationwide received an out-of-school suspension compared to about 5 percent of White students,” the report read. “The comparable rate for Latinos was 7 percent. The data analyzed covered about 85 percent of the nation’s public school students. The suspension rates were equally striking for students with disabilities and revealed that an estimated 13 percent of all students with disabilities were suspended nationally, approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.”

A separate study looking at suspension rates of students in Connecticut discovered, “Many of these children are already struggling academically, and so when they return to school after missing even a few days, they feel that there is no way for them to catch up.” Voices for Children reported that suspending students for relatively minor offenses leads to bigger problems, including dropping out of school.

Many schools are taking it one step further and “criminalizing” student behavior, which is a result of having police embedded in school.

Johanna Wald, Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School recommends applying a different type of approach to solving behavior problems in schools.

Imagine what a restorative-justice approach to a school food fight might accomplish. Students would be required to clean up the cafeteria for a month. They might spend several Saturdays cooking and serving food to needy families. They would be forced to acknowledge the damage they had caused and to practice more constructive forms of conflict resolution. In the process, they might learn valuable lessons about respecting one another, themselves and their environment, without experiencing the terror of being arrested, handcuffed, and detained—and without the realization that their school was becoming more like the streets outside it. In addition, the district would be spared the court, police and legal costs incurred when many children are processed through the system.

Isn’t this what educators are supposed to be doing, teaching kids better ways to behave? I cannot think what my boys have “learned” from their suspension experiences. Throughout high school my boys continued to miss the bus and wear jeans with holes, but they learned that school isn’t the welcoming, nurturing, educational holy ground that they thought it was in kindergarten.