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Why Suspending Kids Does Not Work

Tingley-021 colorAs a school administrator I was never a proponent of frequent or automatic out-of-school suspensions for students.  Of course, some offenses were so egregious that they demanded removal from school and separation from other students.  A couple of times state law with its zero tolerance for some offenses required removing the student from school.  And sometimes out-of-school suspension was the only way to get the parent’s attention and/or cooperation.  Still, for the most part, it was hard to see how removing a kid from school really taught him or her anything or improved the student’s behavior.

In a couple of schools, one of my first changes as head administrator was to establish an in-school suspension room.  This adjustment satisfied teachers who demanded that the student be removed from their room for a period of time while allowing the student to keep up with his or her studies.  For many students, in-school suspension actually served as a means for getting caught up as it provided a little one-on-one tutoring from the suspension room teacher.  The only problem, of course, was the additional expense of another teacher, but I always felt it was a small price to pay for a long-term advantage.

Now some schools are trying another approach to student discipline:  restorative practices.  It appears to me that this idea is a newer iteration of restitution theory, which I have seen used at some schools with good results.  Basically, the idea is that rather than to simply punish a student by suspension, teachers and administrators work with students and parents to decide upon consequences of bad behavior and a plan of action to correct it.  Students have the opportunity to make amends for problems that resulted from poor choices on their part, and they begin to see a cause and effect relationship between their behaviors and the consequences that follow.

Some schools have established student courts to deal with student misconduct.  Students are trained in the process, and students guilty of misconduct may choose either suspension or appearance before the student court.  While some educators claim that student courts have been successful, others, myself included, worry that adults may be seen as abdicating their roles as providing adult guidance and consequences.  In addition, one has to wonder whether kids questioning other kids and coming up with consequences for a peer’s behavior may build resentment on the part of the accused and a sense of superiority on the part of students on the court.

School suspensionsStill, searching for alternatives for out-of-school suspension is a valuable endeavor, especially when you look at some of the statistics for suspensions.  For example, a study released last year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that half – half, mind you – of students in Texas had been suspended of expelled at least once in grades 7-12.  That’s over a million students.  The study also found that black and Latino students were more likely than white students to be suspended and that suspended students were more likely to drop out of school. 

An analysis of federal education data this fall found that nearly one in six black students were suspended in the 2009-10 academic year, a rate three times that of white students.  For black kids with disabilities the rate was one in four.

What do kids learn when they’re suspended from school?  And what’s our responsibility as educators for all kids?  Restitution theory, restorative practices, counseling, in-school suspension – all are better alternatives than shutting kids out of the very thing that might make a difference in their lives.  It’s still about connecting with kids and making them want to be in school because the connections matter.  When we suspend kids, we’re admitting that we’ve failed at that connection.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.