The latest buzz phrase in schools is lowering suspensions. This comes on the heels of several studies and an MSDE report demonstrating that higher suspension rates results in lower student outcomes. In response to pressures to lower suspensions, schools are developing alternatives to manage behavior infractions. Some alternatives include a combination of early interventions and innovative consequences. Other schools have chosen to simply stop suspending, regardless of the offense.
I fear those schools that have stopped suspending have missed the mark. While studies have shown that schools with lower suspension rates have better student outcomes, the studies link lower suspension rates to stronger learning communities, more engaging instruction, and more comprehensive wrap-around supports for students and families. The focus should be the integration of these components, not simply lowering one data point. Schools that have stopped suspending aren’t terrible schools; they are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have. Some schools won’t suspend students with disabilities. Other schools have interpreted the lowering suspensions initiative to mean that the school will be reprimanded if suspension rates exceed a certain limit. The aim of the lowering suspensions initiative is to focus on creative alternatives and interventions to increase student engagement and achievement. The intent is laudable; the execution is falling short.
All students have a right to come to school every day and learn in a safe environment. Schools that allow students to hit teachers, throw desks, seriously disrupt the learning environment, and threaten the safety of others without an appropriate consequence violates the rights of all the students in the building. It is also a disservice to the student engaging in the inappropriate behavior.
Two arguments emerge when discussing this issue:
- The student will go home and play video games and will have no supervision; therefore, suspension is not a consequence.
- The student has a disability and therefore can’t have a consequence under the protections of the law.
Both arguments are valid. Schools should be providing appropriate consequences while simultaneously balancing the rights of all students. Many students who are suspended do not enjoy school; in these cases, suspension serves as a reward instead of punishment. Unfortunately, many schools have difficulty executing alternative solutions to suspension that also protect the rights and safety of all students. These schools are struggling to balance increasing demands with limited resources. It is a juggling act to allocate the necessary manpower and resources in a manner that will adequately support all initiatives
and priorities. Many schools indicate that allocating scarce resources to a select few students isn’t appropriate and doesn’t reflect the school’s responsibility to all students.
When considering the actions of a student with a disability, schools must consider whether a student’s behavior is a manifestation of the student’s disability. Schools should take appropriate actions to develop appropriate interventions and supports to prevent further repetition of such behaviors. Schools should not suspend students whose behavior is directly and substantially related to the disability. At the same time, if behaviors are not addressed immediately, educators fall short of their responsibility to develop good citizens. When schools refuse to provide consequences, it teaches a student that his/her behavior has no
consequence. It also sends the message that the educators think the child has limited capacity to make simple life choices that will keep them and others safe. The intent of determining manifestations of behaviors is to prevent undue suspensions for behaviors that are beyond the control of the student. While schools should never be punishing students for having a disability, they also shouldn’t be excusing behaviors because of a disability. Schools should instead be saying to children, we care too much about you to allow you to behave in a way that will limit your future possibilities; we care enough to expect and want better for you.
One of our main jobs as educators is to teach our students how to be good citizens. In life, one cannot throw a chair at an employer while shouting a stream of expletives and return to the same job minutes later. An adult with a disability can’t break the law and hurt others without consequence unless it can be demonstrated that he/she is incapable of determining the difference between right and wrong. According to the guidelines outlined by the court system, most students with disabilities would not qualify for a court exemption. Schools must teach students self-control and sense of consequence lest we send children out into the world unprepared to be successful citizens.
So how can schools meet the mark and lower suspension rates effectively? First, schools have to go back to the research and incorporate the strategies that have been proven successful. The three key elements discussed time and time again in the research are community building, engaging instruction, and appropriate supports.
Somewhere along the way schools improperly linked increasing rigor with sterilizing the environment from all other distractions. Gone are the days of class pizza parties, “show and tell”, or idle banter about football teams. Teachers are told that “learning begins on the first day.” This has been interpreted to mean that formal instruction begins on the first day and anything not directly related to instruction is unacceptable. There is no longer time to build a classroom community, learn about each other, welcome each other into a new community, and learn the rituals, routines, procedures, and expectations to belong to that
community. The general consensus in schools is that we can no longer waste any time celebrating each other or engaging in rituals or ceremonies for the simple sake of enjoyment. The trouble is that these newly eliminated elements are the cornerstones of communities. In communities, members learn about each other and communicate and negotiate a shared understanding through idle chat. Members celebrate shared success by breaking bread together, laughing together, and engaging in ceremonies. Communities are developed through a shared understanding of rules, roles, and purposes, most of which developed through informal gatherings and conversations. Elimination of these opportunities in schools eliminates valuable opportunities for community building. Rigor can still be achieved while simultaneously building a strong learning community.
Further, as humans, our learning ebbs and flows through periods of rigor and recoupment. Our brains benefit from rest and enjoyment breaks; it strengthens the learning we accomplished during periods of rigor. Schools should not forego instruction for weekly movie and pizza days. However, schools should build communities by welcoming students every day and by creating a space in which students feel safe, unique, and important. Schools should find a way to make sure that every child feels that they are genuinely missed when they aren’t in school. Educators must send a message that each student is an important part of the community-not for test scores or attendance numbers-but simply because each student is a person whose presence and contributions matter. Educators must take the time to find out about students, use that knowledge to make instruction stronger and more meaningful, carefully watch the messages sent through words and gestures, and give themselves permission to deviate from instruction for just a few minutes if it means that students are being taught about community membership, citizenship, and belonging. After all, instruction doesn’t start and stop with books and standardized tests. Those whose feel connected in a community will likely act in a manner that is beneficial to the community; this means the time spent building a positive community is less time lost dealing with discipline and attendance issues.
Second, schools must change the delivery of instruction. In Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World, Don Tapscott writes that schools should be a place where children learn, not where teachers teach. Schools need to combine both. Gone are the days of lecture learning. Students today are avid
consumers of knowledge; teachers need to guide them to responsible consumption, integration, analysis, and generation of such knowledge. Schools should consider blended learning programs that allow students alternative learning environments that better suits their learning needs and styles. Educators don’t have to wait for new curriculums or standards to accomplish this goal; they can start tomorrow by incorporating salient examples and connections and by utilizing the learning strengths of the Net Generation. Further, schools need to prepare all students to be productive members of society. This may or may not include a college education, but it should always include the necessary skills needed for gainful employment. Schools should ensure that students have adequate options to pursue a career path that best suits their learning styles and interests, regardless of whether a career requires an advanced degree.
Finally, schools need to recognize that today’s students have needs that exceed those provided in an instructional setting. Learning can only take place when a student’s basic needs are met, including basic wellness and mental health needs. Schools need more mental health counselors, including school counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. More counselors are needed to expand the scope of service past college and career counseling. More social workers and school psychologists are needed to provide counseling supports to students who would not otherwise have access, to provide behavioral supports and training to staff and students, and to provide wrap around services to the families. The increase of children bringing weapons to schools sends a powerful message that more and more students are feeling disconnected and that community services are not adequate in supporting these childrens' needs. Schools can no longer amputate their responsibility from certain elements of the whole child without also weakening the child’s academic success and the overall success of the school.
Only through community building, engaging instruction, and meaningful supports will schools be able to reduce suspensions in a way that is safe and meaningful. I urge schools to look critically at the messages be sent through the lowering
suspensions policies and evaluate the true implementation of those policies. I further urge schools to focus on the three components above and search for more meaningful data points to measure success that will truly enhance the learning experience for all students.