If not suspension, then what?

California schools are reducing suspension rates, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.

Pressed by law enforcement, civil-rights advocates and the realization that the way they disciplined students was failing, schools are keeping on campus more kids who talk back, throw tantrums or even threaten teachers.

Some educators say they’ve found better alternatives. Five years ago, Yerba Buena High in East San Jose lost 1,062 days to suspension. Last school year, that was down to 23 days. “Suspending students is not effective,” said Yerba Buena Principal Tom Huynh.

Instead of sending students home on a mini-vacation, YB requires detention. At a recent session, a counselor talked about her own rebellious childhood.

Oak Grove High, which serves high-poverty San Jose neighborhoods, uses detention, Saturday school or litter patrol, as well as referrals to a counselor, anger-management help or a substance abuse support group.

But some teachers say “taking away the option to suspend creates a disciplinary void and sticks them with rowdy or even dangerous kids in class,” writes Noguchi.

 “For an experienced teacher who knows how to deal with intense behavioral management — we get that,” said one Oakland Unified teacher who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal. “But for a new teacher, it’s a disaster.”

Even worse, Oakland teachers allege, the pressure not to suspend has led schools to fudge their numbers by not documenting fights or even weapons violations, or the ensuing punishments.

Oakland Unified was forced to reduce suspensions as part of a settlement with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Instead, the district promotes “restorative justice,” which “tries to get scofflaws to make amends, combatants to reconcile and students to come to terms with any harm they’ve done.” The district stresses conflict resolution and support for African-American boys.

“All of this is done to try to put a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It leaves a lot of kids feeling unsafe,” one teacher said.

You can look at school suspension rates by district, courtesy of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which is leading the anti-suspension crusade.

About Joanne


  1. Equating suspension with PADDLING in the article is way over the top. And NO, it is NOT true that paddling is no longer an option. It was in our district’s “student handbook” until just last school year! So, hello, it is still happening. Kids are still being locked in closets (aka “safe rooms”) across the nation. How about we worry about that before we worry about whether a teen who HAPPENS to be black actually gets punished for something he did wrong? Bah.

  2. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Wouldn’t unions fight the administration’s suspension policy to protect teachers and the students who want to learn?

  3. At what point do we finally admit that the inmates (the kids, or even more specifically, the permanantly disruptive kids) are now running the asylum?

  4. Come on, suspension is a *reward* for most acting-out students. They don’t like school anyway, so they quickly — and I do mean quickly — learn that by mouthing off, showing defiance or disrupting class they can get a free pass to the mall or the video arcade. Result? Their bad behavior not only persists, it escalates, and others imitate them because THEY want a day at the mall, too.

    Alternatives to suspension are much less likely to accelerate negative behavior. One middle school I was in had great success with what they called “in-school suspension.” The kid had to show up, report to a study-hall type room, where he was given a packet of work. He had to stay put, missed all recess, gym and “fun” activities, didn’t get to socialize with friends (even at lunch), no phone, no computer. Staff took turns supervising but did not initiate any interaction with the student — if he asked for assistance doing assignments, that would be given, but that’s all. Even visits to the toilet were supervised.

    The school’s suspension rate plummeted, and so did most of its suspension-worthy incidents. A foundation rule of behavior science: you get more of what you pay attention to. Social segregation of the offender and benign ignoring were a much bigger deterrent than the promise of a day or two watching TV or playing video games.

    As one repeat offender said to me, “How dumb are these administrators? Don’t they realize we’re TRYING to get suspended?”

    Of course, different rules come into play for actual violent or dangerous infractions. When those occur our usual policy is to let police handle it or, with younger children, to make the parent take time off and come pick up the kid. They have to come to a meeting of school and guidance personnel before the child is readmitted to class.

    In general, suspension is not a solution. In a perfect world, parents would deal with their errant offspring and the school would not have these issues, but in most cases the parents can’t, don’t or won’t, so we need to find effective deterrents we can impose *in school.* Also, some cases call for other interventions — medical, psychiatric, counselling, whatever.

    Some of these alternatives do work, but must be tailored to the local situation. A middle-class community would likely have a whole different ethos and response to suspensions. I can’t speak to that, having only worked in low-SES schools.

    • Absolutely right on.

    • I’m curious what you think the differences would be between middle and lower class school districts in terms of suspensions. Do you think that the difference is in the volume/nature of behavioral problems, or in the communities response?

      • As I said, I don’t know first hand what the differences would be. I think it is a safe hypothesis that both the types of offences *and* the parental/community response would differ. For instance, I doubt that street-fighting types of incidents are common in middle-class communities, whereas in low-income neighborhoods some students have been socialized to settle all disputes with fisticuffs.

        OTOH, cheating is probably more common in middle-class contexts where more emphasis is placed by families on grades. Cheating is relatively rare in the schools I have worked in. So, surprisingly perhaps, is theft. Few students have items that others want to steal, and I have never once had students steal my property or even cash, whereas colleagues in higher-income areas have reported such incidents.

        Similarly, I’ve never been threatened by a student, while colleagues in “middle class” settings have been threatened with harrassment or parental action , e.g. “my parents will sue you and get you fired.”

        In terms of response to suspension, my observation is that parents in lower-income communities may protest or argue with the suspension, but they do not take legal action or formally appeal, while parents in higher-income settings are known to do this (to the extent that staff in my district are briefed on what to do if a parent shows up for an IEP meeting or a discipline meeting with a lawyer in tow). Middle-class parents are much more aware of the importance of the child’s record being a positive one, for future college/job opportunities. I have never seen a parent with a lawyer, but a neighbor who works in a very high-income school tells me they routinely deal with such cases.

        We do not permit students who disrupt class to remain there. The response depends on the age of the child as well as mitigating factors such as autism. Suspension is rarely the appropriate response.

    • Public education should not be some sort of “right.” We should start from there and work back. My older public school children know that if they misbehave, they will be back at my kitchen table diagramming sentences and learning their Latin in no time. So there is that. Getting rid of the truly disruptive children would save money and class time.

      I could see in-school suspension, but “restorative justice” sounds like some mamby-pamby “tell the nice teacher you’re sorry for saying you’ll kill her whole family” kind of thing that does the child no good and sets up a bad environment for everyone.

  5. We need to go back to tracking, where most of the troublemakers would be in Mr. Kotter’s class, and the rest of the school could go about their business.

    Food for thought: Could you imagine Welcome Back Kotter making on to TV today? Ever wondered why that was one of the shows you never see in reruns?

  6. A policy of restorative justice makes much more sense than punitive actions such as suspension. Allowing students to reconcile their differences and confront their misdeeds is much more effective than kicking them out of the place they don’t want to be in the first place!

    However, what happens with students that are being totally disruptive to other students learning? I’m not sure, but I’d welcome ideas.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      I suppose one of the differences to be reconciled would be I want your lunch money and you don’t want me to have it. Or one girl thinks the other girl is messing with her man–which happens to be true–and figures she deserves a whipping. The other girl doesn’t think she deserves a whipping. What to do, what to do?
      Sneering isn’t the same as disrespecting. Oh, yes it is.
      My suggestion is everybody should act like Asians.