Oh, Sweet Suspensions, Wherefore Art Thou?
“City planning significant changes to school discipline rules to cut down on suspending students,” proclaimed a headline in the Feb. 16 edition of The Daily News, resulting in yet another hail of attacks on the liberal policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Farina for hastening the end of western civilization.
The critics just love those charter schools in the city which suspended students at almost three times the rate of the public schools during the 2011-12 school year, the last year for which public data is available. Eleven charter schools suspended more than 30 percent of their students according to Chalkbeat, the education blog. Given all that has been going on about race recently, it should be no surprise that discipline and suspension rates have also become hot racially tinged topics. The News reported, “Stats for the 2013-2014 school year show roughly 90 percent of 53,000 suspensions in city schools involved black or Hispanic kids.” On the other side, people raise the issue of whether these numbers represent racial bias.
Now, as a teacher, I was opposed to suspensions and harsh discipline, feeling that having to resort to them was an admission of failure on my part. That or an admission of failure to the administration. As an outspoken teacher, I never wanted to give my supervisors an edge on me by asking them for assistance. And if one of my kids got suspended, what do I do when he (most suspensions are boys) returned from a number of days out of school or my classroom? I preferred to deal with things on my own.
Things can get pretty ridiculous in this debate. An editorial slamming the policy stated, “Principals will now have to get written approval from Department of Education headquarters before suspending a kindergarten to-third-grade student, or a student in any grade who commits one of the most common infractions: insubordination.” I taught in elementary schools for 30 years and yes there was some bad behavior by kids in K-3 grades but suspend kids that age? A school can’t manage to figure out some alternative? If a child has serious emotional issues then they need help, not suspension. I never taught high school where some students may be more threatening if they engage in serious misbehavior and containing them in the school might be a problem. But there are answers for schools willing to explore alternatives to suspension. Restorative justice (RJ) programs where students must face and take responsibilities for their actions in front of a peer pressure group have been having enormous positive impacts on schools where discipline was an issue and have resulted in some remarkable transformations. Wary educators without direct knowledge of these programs fear they may be just a cover up for another failed onslaught in the blame the teacher game over the past 15 years.
My friend who teaches at a high school in Brooklyn was one such skeptic. Now he has the entire school involved in restorative justice programs.
He reports, “I visited a few schools, one a 300 student school that had 150 suspensions (some students suspended multiple times). They dropped to 63 suspensions after they initiated a new disciplinary program in 2012/13. Now in the second year of implementation they have had only 2 principal's suspensions.” These are hard facts pointing to the success of RJ programs. He told me about mediation programs where “two students, who engaged in a verbal or physical fight, meet in a room, sit across from each other, and each one has a student representative trained in meditation. Both students tell their side of the stories, the objective being to get both sides to understand the other, discuss calmly how they could have handled the situation differently and come to a compromise agreement on what will happen now. Most mediations end in the two students hugging and becoming friends.”
If a school with a rational administration – not always easy to find – wants a shot at solving the suspension issue, giving restorative justice a shot is the way to go.
Norm restores himself daily at his blog, ednotesonline.org.