Suspended from school: Road to nowhere

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 1:06 p.m. MDT

More than three 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.  (Shutterstock) More than three 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. (Shutterstock)

More than three 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. A preponderance of those children were members of ethnic minorities or had disabilities, the report showed.

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 non-disabled peers.

"Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment," the report said. It's findings countered "the oft-repeated claim that it is necessary to kick out the bad kids so the good kids can learn is shown to be a myth. In fact, research suggests that a relatively lower use of out-of-school suspensions, after controlling for race and poverty, correlates with higher test scores, not lower," it said.

Suspension increases a young person’s probability of both dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system, the Civil Rights Project report said, then called for suspensions to be used only as a measure of last resort, and for schools to adopt rehabilitative philosophies that focus on positive behavior.

"It is critically important to keep students, especially those facing inequality in other parts of their lives, enrolled in school," the report said. "This relates directly to the common and often highly inappropriate policy of punishing students who are already at risk of dropping out by suspending them from school."

Many suspensions arise from zero-tolerance policies, which have been over-zealously applied to students wielding "weapons" that have included butter knives and theater-prop swords, making smart-mouth comments or bringing their cellphones to school, said a story in Education Week, noting that those policies have avid proponents.

"Supporters of out-of-school suspension and expulsion counter that students have become more combative and disruptive, problems attributable at least in part to the deterioration of students' home lives," the story said. "Out-of-school punishment shifts the weight of discipline to parents, they reason. ... If some groups of students appear to be disproportionately affected, it's not purposeful, they say, just a reflection of reality."

The story quotes Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who said that racially skewed discipline rates at school reflect societal realities, citing greater breakdown in the nuclear family among African-Americans than other racial groups.

"For black boys growing up with no father figure, key lessons on self-control are often absent," Campbell said. "To then hold the rest of the class hostage, and to say it's the school's fault, it's blaming the messenger."

But failure to provide adequate educational resources, especially in low-income schools that serve high proportions of minority students, is the fault of schools, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for 'extras' such as counselors, special education services, and even textbooks, lock students into second-rate educational environments," the report said. "This failure to meet educational needs increases disengagement and dropouts, increasing the risk of later court involvement."

And, disciplining by suspension can be part of a purposeful push to rid schools of struggling, 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."

A story at the Teach Safe Schools website takes the position that problem behavior at school escalates when students lack the skills necessary to behaving appropriately.

"Skills such as academic competence, anger management, impulse control, conflict resolution, and social problem-solving are important for effective participation in the academic environment," the story said. "When larger and larger groups of students lack one or more of these competencies, the potential for escalating problem behavior increases."

Teach Safe Schools calls for school administrators to consult with teachers who make large numbers of discipline referrals and work with them on improving classroom management skills. Assessing management strategies in schools lunchrooms, commons and hallways is also recommended.

To avoid suspensions except in extreme circumstances, the following ordered strategies are recommended:

Phone call to parents and/or a parent conference

After school or lunch detention

Co-curricular activity suspension (sports or clubs)

Restitution (financial or social, such as a written apology)

Community service around the school

School-based or home-school contingency contract

Saturday school

Education.com gives recommendations for dealing effectively with severe discipline problems that do warrant removing a student from the school campus.

"A 'best practices' situation allows for the availability of an interim off-site alternative placement location to which a student can be referred immediately," the report said. "This option also reduces the possibility that the student will be sent home to an unsupervised environment where additional problems may occur."

From the interim site, responses can be considered, such as in-school suspension or a an alternative school.

"If this is not available, then the administrator needs assurance that adequate parental supervision will be in place for the brief period of out-of-school suspension while behavioral plans are developed," the report said.

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