Suspension Prevention is Everybody’s Business

Justice System Reform

Across North Carolina and the nation, what’s often referred to as “the great equalizer” turns students away. Schools suspend students for not attending school. Yes, really. Students who miss too much school are told they must miss even more school. Does anyone really believe that less education is an effective strategy to help kids who already, for a wide range of reasons, are receiving less education to begin with as their school absences reflect? Would we ever deprive a sick child of medicine as a consequence of missing a dose?

Research shows that for the vast majority of students, truancy and missed classes stem from conditions and circumstances that have no direct connection to schools – stress at home, low expectations for academic achievement and hunger, to name a few. Few people would say that these conditions are teachers’ or schools’ fault. Yet while teachers and other school leaders may not cause the challenges that impede school attendance, they typically have substantial discretion for how to address those problems on school grounds. They have the power to keep kids from school but they often also have the power, in some cases more power than family members and peers – to keep kids in school.

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary provides the following definitions of suspension:

  • The act of forcing someone to leave a job, position, or place for a usually short period of time as a form of punishment; the act of suspending someone
  • The act of stopping or delaying something for a usually short period of time
  • The act of making something invalid or ineffective for a usually short period of time

The third definition is intriguing.  Suspension is ineffective and creates ineffectiveness in terms of students’ success. Evidence suggests that suspension does little to suspend poor behavior. Suspension also ensures that not only are students suspended from learning but also from socialization. Fortunately, there are positive and feasible alternatives to suspension.

I asked some actual students to get their insights. I asked middle schoolers whether they or someone they know has been suspended, what the reason was, whether they thought the suspension was a reasonable punishment (why or why not), and if they could think of any alternative punishments that would be more effective or have a better impact on kids and the community.

They all know someone who has been suspended. They were mixed about whether suspension was a fair consequence. It depended mostly on who was at fault, that is who “started it” but also on whether the consequence fit the severity of the infraction. As one student put it: “Personally, I think this punishment was very irrational. I understand how this was an offense to the rules, but I don’t understand why the opposing student was not also punished for his wrongdoing. Secondly, I find that suspending a child for a week for something that could have been easily fixed with a bandaid is highly irrational as well. Again, I understand the offense, but the punishment given was not fair to the student or her education. While she was in suspension she could have been in class learning something. I think suspension shouldn’t be held during school hours, but I guess that’s why we have detention.”

The same student offered the following about more effective punishment: “Silent lunch; taking away from fun activities; sitting alone during class; more work. Anything except the most common – ‘suspension’.”

There is reason to be hopeful. School districts around the country are increasingly eliminating suspensions for nonviolent infractions. In some cases, they are requiring what two of my student respondents suggested – community service in or around school – and other alternatives such as peer mediation. Related, while in-school suspension (ISS) has long been considered a way to address infractions without suspending students out-of-school, it is widely recognized as often being no more than a holding pen to avoid out-of-school suspension, which looks bad on both students’ and schools’ records. As the director of Boomerang, an alternative to suspension program that serves the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County (NC) schools stated, “If we could only get the kids who are sent to ISS and get kids before they’re suspended. There’s so much we could do. But we almost always learn about them only after they’ve been suspended.”

And then there’s prevention, which includes strategies such as providing services to students who are at high risk of misbehavior before they commit an infraction that might lead to suspension. As with so many issues, there is little if any dispute that preventing the need for suspension is the best option of all. The widely known “early warning” signs for school dropout are highly similar to early warnings for suspension. Let’s respond to these signs. Remove suspension as a consequence of truancy. Minimize the use of ISS. Refer students to alternatives such as Boomerang, not ISS. Make suspension prevention the norm, not the exception.

Jenni Owen serves on YJNC’s Board of Directors

Note: The author recently issued a report, “Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline” which is available here.