Suspended futures: finding better school discipline methods

Some schools reconsider suspension as a corrective measure

Published: Monday, March 18 2013 12:15 a.m. MDT

Flor Guerrero reads with her two young daughters Sashi and Bianca Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at home.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Flor Guerrero is a high school graduate, a fact likely to surprise anyone who knew her at age 14.

Guerrero was the kind of ninth-grader most likely to drop out of high school, and least likely to be missed. She did poorly in class, when she wasn't skipping school. She talked back to her teachers when corrected. She got in fights on school grounds — all of this by her own admission.

There were reasons behind Guerrero's bad behavior, but it seemed to her that no one wanted to hear about them at the large east-side high school she attended in Salt Lake City five years ago. As she tells it, most of the attention Guerrero got at her big, impersonal school was negative. Arguments with teachers led to meetings in the principal's office. Stints in detention escalated to several suspensions, then expulsion. When Guerrero left school, she was a sophomore — pregnant, and with almost no credits on her transcript.

Statistically speaking, Guerrero's suspensions placed her on the path toward a life of poverty or worse. Some call suspension a "schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline" because suspensions correlate with strong likelihood for dropping out, needing public assistance, and involvement in the criminal justice system.

That's a factor in recent attempts to curb school suspensions in some states. Last June, the Chicago School board revised its student code of conduct, eliminating automatic 10-day suspensions for serious offenses. New York City public schools made a similar move last fall, eliminating suspensions for low-level offenses like tardiness and talking back to teachers, and reducing the length of suspensions from 10 days to five for such offenses as vandalism and minor fights.

Though such policies may reduce the undesirable effects of school suspension for individual students, and society, they raise questions about whether the rights of all students to learn in safe, calm environments are eroding.

Too hard?

More than 3 million schoolchildren lost instruction time at school in 2009-10 because they were suspended from school, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project at University of California/Los Angeles.

Those students missed the learning that went on at school during their enforced absences, and often, were left without adult supervision. And those consequences fell most often upon minority students and those with disabilities, leading to charges by civil rights groups that suspensions are used disproportionately in the discipline of certain groups.

National suspension rates show that 17 percent of black children in grades K-12 were suspended at least once. Eight percent of Native American students were suspended at least once, along with 7 percent of Latinos, 5 percent of whites and 2 percent of Asian-Americans. Thirteen percent of students with disabilities were suspended — approximately twice the rate of their nondisabled peers.

"Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment," the report said. "Schools may actually encourage dropouts in response to pressures from test-based accountability regimes such as the No Child Left Behind Act, which create incentives to push out low-performing students to boost overall test scores."

Zero-tolerance policies toward drugs and weapons at schools became popular in the 1990s, and play into the suspension debate when they are applied harshly.

"The so-called zero-tolerance approach to discipline, once reserved for the most serious of offenses, has prompted the suspensions and expulsions of students in possession of butter knives and theater-prop swords," said a January story in the Education Week newsmagazine for K-12 education. "Research and public positions by psychologists, physicians, and teachers' unions denounce such practices as harmful to students academically and socially, useless as prevention tools, and unevenly applied."

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