Are School Suspensions on the Rise?

Dana Stahl, a learning specialist and educational consultant, will address educational questions and concerns that parents may have regarding their children’s academic development and progress in school. Topics can center on such concerns as how to handle homework dilemmas or what questions to ask at a CSE meeting. Questions can range from “How best do parents advocate for their children?” to “How do parents interpret formal tests that have been administered?” to “Which schools and colleges are right for my child?”

Readers can write to Dana at Dana will respond to one reader’s question a month. Dana hopes that her response will alleviate parents’ concerns and offer useful educational advice.

Q. Is it true that school suspensions are on the rise?

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A. Yes, school suspensions are absolutely on the rise. New standards of behavior and expectations of students from kindergarten to 12th grade are in place in both private and public schools. The number of children who are suspended for nonviolent acts is alarming. In one case, a kindergartener was suspended for calling his teacher “a dumb bunny!”  Because suspensions have adverse effects on our children, we need to develop solutions, not suspensions.

Lisa Syron, the executive director of Student Advocacy, and Stefanie Shabman, the legal director, of Student Advocacy recently gave us some numbers in “Solutions Not Suspensions,” a presentation that Student Advocacy gave on the topic. Their findings reveal that more than 100,000 students were suspended from NYC’s schools in the 2011-2012 school year, representing 4% of the student population. An estimated 78% of the suspensions in grades 11-12 in NYC and 94% of the suspensions in Westchester were for nonviolent incidents.  

Alarmingly, 22% of all suspended children are elementary school students. Statistics indicate that disabled students are far more likely to be suspended than their nondisabled counterparts.

School suspensions lead to loss of academic time and, often, to academic failure. Syron and Shabman report that among students suspended in, the NYC’s 2011-2012 school year, 31% were held back compared with 5% of students who were not suspended.

Sadly, school suspensions nationally are a gateway into the juvenile justice system. A three-day suspension plus 20 additional absences has been correlated to a 61% increase in arrest rates among students. Schools in this scenario are a prison pipeline.

Clearly, faculty training is needed to foster acceptance of best practices in working with disabled students.  Administrations need to review each case prior to a school suspension to determine if an alternative solution can be put into place. For instance, an elementary student who has an auditory processing disorder may not ‘hear’ the command to ‘remove his hat’ in the hallway by his teacher or principal. The hallway may offer too many external distractions for the student to ‘tune’ into that instruction. So, even though hats are not allowed to be worn in school, and despite the fact that this child may have been asked repeatedly to ‘remove his hat,’ a suspension for insubordination would be an unreasonable solution for that student.

Alternative solutions to suspensions are crucial because students often make poor decisions and their social judgment is not sound. After all, students are children, and educational institutions need to embrace these situations as teachable moments, not punitive ones. Examples that Syron and Shabman suggest as alternative solutions to suspensions included community service and a campaign to show the harm of smoking when caught smoking on school grounds. With regard to alcohol use, they suggest weekly in-school detentions with group counseling in alcoholism and addiction.  

Another suggestion for alternative responses for disciplinary offenses is restoration justice –making amends for inappropriate action and having the punishment fit the crime. Other suggestions include reflective essays making apologies and taking ownership for the actions, as well as parent meetings, community service, and withdrawal of privileges.  Examples of preventative measures that will also help to avoid suspensions include training by mental health professionals who will instruct faculty on how to deescalate situations. Mediation, academic support, credit recovery, mentoring coaches and actively teaching social skills and character development will all aid in reducing the increase in school suspensions.

by Dana Stahl, M.Ed., Educational Alternatives LLC

Dana’s educational consultant practice focuses on assessment, advocacy and school placement for students with learning disabilities and social-emotional challenges.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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