Taking Aim at School Suspensions

On June 3, 2014, in News 2014, by Mark Norris

By Leslie Brody, Wall Street Journal
June 3, 2014

Report Ties Suspensions to Students Dropping Out and Ending Up in Juvenile Justice System

Strict discipline policies have led to the suspensions of millions of students yearly in the U.S., mostly for minor infractions—a practice that makes them more likely to fall behind, drop out and end up in the juvenile justice system, according to a report being released Tuesday.

The nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan group, sought to reduce suspensions by highlighting schools that prevented transgressions in a range of ways, such as helping students get mental-health care quickly and feel more connected to caring adults.

The report comes amid concern about excessive suspensions and racial disparities among them, and frustration that overly harsh discipline is exacerbating achievement gaps.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education reported that the problem started even before kindergarten. More than 8,000 preschoolers were suspended in the school year ended in spring of 2012: While black students represented 18% of preschoolers, they accounted for more than 42% of students suspended.

The center’s 400-page School Discipline Consensus Report said its guidance was drawn from numerous studies and some 700 interviews with experts representing educators, police, court officials, parents and others.

The three-year project cost more than $2 million, with the U.S. Justice Department funding roughly half of it.

Citing examples nationwide, including several from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the report described how schools can create a “positive school climate” so that students feel supported and engaged in learning.

At the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Queens, for example, every staff member is assigned to serve as an adviser for about 14 students throughout their high school careers. Advisers are supposed to meet often with their students one-on-one and in small groups, to talk about college planning and other issues.

Principal Edgar Rodriguez said in an interview that the system helped the school rack up good attendance and a high graduation rate. “At least one person in the school knows each student very well,” he said.

The report said the goal of creating a nurturing environment can get lost in the pressure to boost test scores. Too often, it said, attempts to improve school climate are perfunctory, such as hanging student art on walls and announcing teacher appreciation days, rather than deeper efforts to treat suspensions as a last resort.

Some of this boils down to better training in classroom management, said Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center. “We can all remember that teacher who put a finger to her lips and achieved instant silence, versus the teacher who was screaming and nobody was listening,” he said.

Mr. Thompson said a growing number of schools have “early-warning systems” to flag students who are floundering academically. He said schools should put similar focus on spotting those who need help avoiding suspensions: Some may need therapy to deal with emotional pain or family problems.

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, called the report “shockingly reasonable” in its effort to counter zero-tolerance policies that spread in the 1990s in response to school violence and shootings.

“It’s the most disadvantaged, most vulnerable kids who are being denied learning time in the guise of discipline,” Mr. Noguera said, adding that some schools suspend students for truancy. “These are the kids who don’t like to be in school anyway, and you’re sending them home to watch television?”

Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, expressed concern that pressure to cut suspensions might be taken too far and hamper some teachers’ ability to remove misbehaving students who interfere with others’ progress.

“There will be circumstances where the vast majority of kids who are in class and want to learn need to take precedence over a few disruptive kids,” he said.

In New York City, there were 34,471 suspensions from last July through March 18, down slightly from the same period a year earlier.

City officials said they were working on possible changes to the discipline code to reduce suspensions, and training educators and police in strategies to de-escalate inappropriate behavior.

The report cited a 2013 study, “Out of School and Off Track,” which estimated that more than 2 million students nationwide were suspended during the academic year that ended in summer 2010. It said the vast majority of suspensions were for minor infractions, such as disrupting class, tardiness and dress-code violations.

Strategies to Reduce Suspensions

In New York City and Newark, N.J., a nonprofit called Turnaround for Children set up partnerships between schools and mental-health clinics to make it easier to get quick treatment for students who need intensive behavioral help.

Connecticut launched an initiative to reduce suspensions and expulsions by diverting cases to support systems. In Hartford, for example, police were trained to use emergency mobile psychiatric services as an alternative to arrest for students in crisis.

Westbrook, Conn., public schools used a tool called the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory to survey all students, parents and staff. Along with data on discipline, attendance and students’ risky activities, the survey was used to set goals for improvements.

—Source: The School Discipline Consensus Report

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