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.
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."
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. The statement is corroborated by a 2003 Rockefeller Center report, which found that criminalizing trivial offenses at school pushes children out of the school system and into the criminal justice system.
Striking the right balance between draconian discipline measures and excessive leniency is tricky, though. A 2012 decision to soften New York City public schools' disciplinary code — in part, because punishments fell more heavily on underprivileged youth — has made it more difficult for teachers to manage their classrooms effectively, some critics say.
"The more other student(s) see that there is not consequence to bad behavior, the more others join in, creating a snowballing situation," said Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York. "It's important to have a model of authority early on. These are kids that are coming from homes that are unstable, and often chaotic. A very regimented and clear set of norms is very important."
MacDonald says that the interest of students who are eager to learn should be paramount.
"The teacher should set clear rules, make the consequences very transparent, and expect the students to live by them. If they don't, at some point it may be necessary to remove a student from a classroom," MacDonald said. "Schools are being asked to socialize kids who are not getting socialized at home, but there's a limit to what they can do. If a student continues to be disruptive, he just can't be allowed to interfere with the other kids' ability to learn."
It's a dilemma that leaves educators looking for ways to head off discipline problems early, before such severe measures as suspension or expulsion become necessary.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is a time-honored discipline philosophy used in schools around the nation to decrease problem behavior and establish positive school cultures. It helps educators know how to deal with bad behavior in their schools and instead encourage good social skills and behaviors.
Under this model, when kids break rules there are clear consequences, as well as an emphasis on prevention, which could include group or individual counseling to help students before they get into deep trouble.
Bob Stevens, PBIS coordinator for South Carolina's Charleston County School District, said the system works well in all of the schools in his district, which serves the wealthy neighborhoods of the Kiawah Island resort area, and the poverty-stricken students of the nearby sea islands, an economically depressed area.
Haut Gap Middle School, on Johns Island, serves a high population of poor students. It was at risk for closure in 2008 because of poor academic performance. Stevens credits positive disciplinary and academic interventions for turning the school around.
Clear expectations and heading off problems before they escalated replaced suspension as the go-to disciplinary measure. As suspensions dropped, the percentage of students getting good grades increased, defying expectations about the need to get problem students out of the system, Stevens said. The school went from being at risk for closure to winning top ratings on the South Carolina 2012 school report card.
"Haut Gap is a very different place than it was five years ago," Stevens said. "Students are engaged, and they are learning. … In a community that has a lot of problems, Haut Gap — because of PBIS — is the consistent bright spot in students' lives."
Alternatives that work
For Guerrero, now 20, the traditional school system didn't work, but an alternative program met her needs, sparing her from joining the ranks of high school dropouts with limited futures.
There were plenty of forces pushing her in that direction, though. Her Spanish-speaking mother worked constantly to support three children — Guerrero's father deserted the family soon after her birth. An older sister who dropped out of school to help pay the bills soon became involved with gangs, and that was the natural expectation for Guerrero, too.
Guerrero's language barrier, plus a reading disability, meant she was already behind in academics when she started school. The older she became, the less comfortable she felt among rows of white children with life advantages she lacked, in classes taught by teachers who couldn't find the time or means to help her.
"I got no help at home — my mom was always working," she said. "I didn't have the support of anyone at that time."
Though she acted out at school as she got older, and skipped most of her classes, Guerrero liked her biology classes, had an affinity for the subject, and tried to attend regularly. School suspensions — one about a month long — made it impossible to keep up.
She remembers alternative school being brought up as a threat when she misbehaved at the high school she attended. Ironically, Guerrero made her own choice to enroll at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, an alternative school for non-traditional students, after her expulsion. For her, it was an alternative that worked. She was pregnant when she entered, and credits her then-unborn child for motivating her to succeed.
"I didn't want my daughter to end up the same way I did," Guerrero said. "I decided I was going to prove to anyone that I could this. And I proved everyone wrong."
At Horizonte, she found small classes and teachers willing to delve into her learning problems and find solutions. She was given encouragement and opportunities.
Guerrero joined the school's MESA — Math, Engineering, Science Achievement — program and thrived. She graduated from Horizonte in spring of 2012 with a $1,000 scholarship to Salt Lake Community College.
Life is still a work in progress for Guerrero. She stayed in college until she ran out of money, but plans to return. Currently, she is a stay-at-home mother of two daughters. She has made a relatively stable life with the father of one of the children, who supports the family
Guerrero is adamant when she says she will return to college, and to work. Because she rose above the discipline problems that almost derailed her life, she will have her hard-earned high school diploma in hand to smooth the way.