In the 2009-10 academic year there were over 750,000 suspensions in California schools, Kathryn Baron wrote in a piece for Topics in Education last week. Meanwhile, Suspended Education in California, a recent analysis of federal data by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, found that 20% of all African American students were suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared to one of every 14 Latino students and one of every 17 white students.
In the wake of such revelations, the California Legislature’s education committees recently approved six new bills to cut down expulsions and suspension. SB 1235, sponsored by Darryl Steinberg, would require schools with suspension rates above 25% for any ethnic group to implement an alternative consequence that still holds the student accountable while keeping them in school. (A list of the other bills can be seen here).
While it is certainly desirable to reduce inequities in the education system and to reduce suspension rates in general, it is also important to understand why suspension rates have climbed so high and why there are such large racial disparities, rather than cobbling together a few knee jerk laws that avoid the actual causes and do little to make schools safer or equitable.
Steinberg notes that kids who get suspended and miss school fall further behind and thus have a greater chance of dropping out. However, this is a correlation, not necessarily a cause. It may be true that students who have been suspended are less likely to graduate, but one or two suspensions are unlikely to cause a student to flunk out. A more likely scenario is that the student is already behind in credits and is struggling in his current classes. He may be reading well below grade level and have other problems that make it difficult to focus during class time, contributing both to behavior problems and poor academic success.
There are many alternatives to suspension and expulsion, the most effective of which is probably prevention. A lot can be done to create academic cultures in which students want to learn and understand and internalize the behaviors necessary for their academic success. Sadly, this does not exist at many of schools, particularly low income schools.
While there are many reasons for this, the Apartheid nature of our schools is a major influence. Some school are filled predominantly with middle class students who read at grade level, do their homework and study, and who tend not to get in very much trouble. Then there are the low income schools which are often filled with students who are reading far below grade level, who are behind academically, and who have trouble sitting still and focusing for extended periods. Not surprisingly, these students tend to have more trouble following the rules and get in trouble more often.
While there seems to be no political will to break up these segregated schools or to reassign students in a more equitable manner, there are a lot of things that administrators could do to create and support a more academic culture without relying on suspensions. For example, supporting teachers promptly and effectively when informed of a disciplinary problem can help maintain a positive classroom environment and prevent disruptions from growing out of control. Being visible on campus during passing periods, lunch and recess can help them to identify and stop bullying or other inappropriate behavior before they get out of hand. School rules and policies can be reinforced through assemblies, classroom visits and school media.
Unfortunately, these things often do not occur at schools. I have seen administrators ignore drugs and fights (or allow students back in class the same or next day). In one school I was at, after a homophobic assault and melee, the gay students were suspended and the only administrative or school wide response was an email by the principal recommending that teachers send their students to a voluntary debriefing by the student government. (For other examples of administrators behaving badly, click here or here).
Baron points to the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program as a model for changing student behavior and improving the school climate. She describes a principal who spent time calming an out-of-control student who wouldn’t stop cursing and then listening to her, learning that her mother had just abandoned the family. This is what schools should be doing all along, but often can’t because they don’t have the human resources. It takes time to listen. More importantly, the girl should have been identified and referred to her counselor or a school safety advocate (if either were available) before she lost control, something that is also difficult with all the budget and staffing cuts of the past few years.
Nevertheless, this sort of response by the adults at a school is far more likely to prevent school violence than zero tolerance policies and it is more likely to lead to solutions that can help students who are struggling with difficult situations before they blow up go postal.