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The reality of student suspensions

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows suspensions and expulsions reached double digits in many California school districts, with some exceeding 25 percent.

Over the last three years, California schools issued over 2 million suspensions.

The issues schools are dealing with are real. I know. I’ve been a teacher myself.

But that’s simply too many kids.

Suspending students has real consequences. Excluding them from the classroom hurts academic performance, decreases their connection to school, and increases the odds they’ll get in trouble with the law.

A disruptive student needs the most supervision.  Kicking him out of school guarantees he will get the least.  It doesn’t make sense.

What bothers me most is the missed opportunity. When a child acts out, he’s crying out for help. There’s usually an underlying issue—maybe there’s trouble at home, or he’s lost a family member, or he deals with violence in his community.

Ignore those issues, and behavior won’t improve, no matter how many times you suspend the student. If we were treating broken legs, we wouldn’t just cover their mouths while they scream in pain. We’d heal them.

But most California schools aren’t doing that. Listen, I know it’s easier to heal a broken leg than a whole child.  But it’s easier and cheaper to heal our kids’ now—while they’re still coming to school—than when they’ve dropped out or worse.

The most common reason kids are suspended isn’t for violence or drugs. Forty percent of kids are suspended for something called “willful defiance,” that basically means not doing something that an adult on campus tells a kid to do. Maybe a teacher asks a student to go to class and he refuses, or a teacher asks kids to sit down and they ignore it.  To teachers, this kind of defiance feels serious, like it inhibits their ability to manage their classrooms.

Other times, however, students are written up for willful defiance for lesser offenses like being tardy or not turning in their homework. Students should be held accountable for mis-steps like these, but they shouldn’t be kicked out of school.

The problem is that suspending kids for acts of defiance—big or small—rarely addresses the underlying cause of the problem. And if we only treat the symptom, it will just keep happening again and again.

Often, the misbehavior stems from a real lack of trust between the kids and the adults on a school campus.

The good news is that a growing number of schools with high suspension rates have found ways to deal with defiance that address  the root cause of the problem, holds students accountable, and gets them back on track.

Richmond High School and Castlemont High School in Oakland have trained teachers on something called restorative justice, an approach to discipline requiring students and teachers to talk through their conflicts and jointly determine how to remedy them.

Instead of suspending a student who acts out, teachers and administrators are learning how to redirect the student’s behavior and ask them questions to get at the underlying problem. They make time to sit in “circles,” where students and teachers can talk it through when a student disrupts a class or two students have a conflict. As a result, both schools have reduced suspensions significantly and made their campuses safer. Teachers say the learning environment has improved and their jobs are easier.

But local schools can’t solve this problem alone. We need common sense school discipline reforms at the state level, too. Right now, schools can define willful defiance however they like. Its definition in state law is vague, and school administrators use it subjectively.

The U.S. Department of Education data shows that students of color, especially, African American students, are suspended far more often for defiance than other students. Yet, African-American students are no more likely than other students to be suspended for more serious offenses, where suspension is mandatory.  Something is wrong.

The Education Code should be more specific about what types of defiance and disruption warrant suspension. Schools should rarely suspend students for defiance, and districts should never expel for it.

Teachers and staff should be trained in techniques that build trust and prevent problems before they escalate. Schools should adopt policies that support teachers by reducing suspensions while improving student behavior. To be sure, students who are a danger to others should be removed, but it should be a last resort

I know you think these approaches sound expensive, and we can’t afford them. But we can either pay a little now, while the problems can still be addressed—or a lot more later.

To me, the choice is clear.


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