The Unintended Consequences of School Suspensions

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While school suspensions aim to correct problem behavior, the results are often quite the opposite. Students who face suspension are more likely to end up struggling academically, face multiple suspensions, and are more likely to drop out and/or end up in jail.

Additionally, the absenteeism caused by suspension takes funding away from schools—in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. This only exacerbates the issue as lack of resources makes it harder for schools to address problem behavior by students.

A vicious cycle can form where a student does not correct the problem behavior, faces multiple suspensions and eventually expulsion, and then moves to another school where the cycle continues. This not only likely results in students dropping out, but also leaving schools with low attendance, further reducing the funding they get.

Most educators understand this, but are at a loss for practical and effective solutions for correcting problem behavior without expelling or suspending students.

The Process of Suspending a Student

The decision to suspend a student comes about when a principal considers that the safety, care, and wellbeing of the student, staff, or other students is at jeopardy. Suspension of a student is typically considered when the student is involved in:

  • An act of violence
  • The possession of a firearm or prohibited weapon (including knifes)
  • The possession of illegal substances
  • An act of serious criminal behavior related to the school

Before a student can be put on suspension, a principal must consider the age, disabilities, and developmental level of the student, as well as the student welfare strategies that have been implemented, such as seeing the school counselor or nurse.

Based on the severity of the student’s actions, suspension can be broken down into short and long-term suspensions. A short-term suspension is when a student is suspended no more than four school days at a time. Short suspensions are typically implemented for cases of continued disobedience and aggressive behavior.

For a long-term suspension, the principal can impose up to 20 school days of suspension. If the behavior continues after two long suspensions, then the student is subject to expulsion from the school.

Why Out-of-School Suspensions Don’t Work

It is highly likely that a student facing suspension already holds a negative view towards attending school. To such as student, a suspension does not appear as punishment, or time to reflect on his or her actions, but instead as vacation time away from school and supervision.

Suspensions do not teach students how to correct the problem behavior, nor addresses underlying issues that may be present. More often than not, the student returns and reoffends, making time away from school only exacerbate the problem at hand, as noted in the 2012 Journal of School Violence.

On the other hand, the school does not have much of a choice. While alternative steps such as counseling can be taken, these require the student’s participation in order to be effective, as well as large sums of funding needed to support behavior-correcting solutions that may simply be nonexistent. Furthermore, discipline procedures are set by the school boards and lawyers, and removing a student appears to be simpler and more appealing than seeking alternative means of correcting the behavior. In the end, suspended students are often left without the support they need to make real changes.

The New Attitude Towards Suspensions in California

The attitudes towards student suspensions are changing. In 2014, California passed a bill, developed by the State Board of Education, that eliminates willful defiance or disruption of school activates as a reason to expel students, and shifts the focus of remedies towards positive reinforcement. This bill, known as Assembly Bill 420, came as a result of a push to keep students in the education system and to reduce suspensions in the state.

Before 420, The “act of willful defiance” made up almost half of suspensions, ranging from reasons such as not turning in homework to disrespecting a teacher. After the bill came into law, more than 45% of districts received the positive ratings of “blue” or “green”, indicating favorable performance under the new suspension standards. The total number of suspensions fell from 709,580 in 2011-12 to 503,101 in 2013-14—a 29% reduction–based on data from the California Department of Education.

Moreover, in Bellflower Unified School District, the reported number of instructional days missed because of suspension in 2015-2016 dropped by 85%, compared to 2014-2015. These improvements came after the new legislative approach that focuses on investing in student-teacher relationships, positive reinforcement for behavior through Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and investing in elementary school counselors.

Additionally, in Stockton Unified School District, multiple elementary schools implemented “classroom circles” where students can make amends for poor behavior towards others and work through conflicts. These schools saw referrals to the office and suspensions drop by 70% and nearly 50%.

Nonetheless, the absenteeism costs schools in California hundreds of millions of dollars. Before the new legislative rollout in 2014, public schools in San Diego County reported a loss of $102 million dollars in state funding because of absenteeism. The attendance-based funding formula forces schools to track each students’ attendance, excused, unexcused, and suspension related combined. Therefore, while the number of suspensions are seen to be improving, the funding for schools are still constantly at risk because of chronic truancy. The new legislation is working to battle suspensions, but students still lack motivation to regularly attend school. This is a problem that districts have been facing at increasing rates since 1994.

Changing the Social Climate

There is a large push in the education system to move away from the penalty approach towards the restorative practices that bring involved students together, along with adults and peers, to talk through conflict. However, the students involved must be willing to participate to make the practice effective.

Nonetheless, the restorative process and formal Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support method have shown to improve the climate of schools in California. These methods encompass meditation, youth mentoring, and classroom circles to help keep students on track academically in addition to efforts to improve student-teacher relationships. This is a facet of support that can reduce classroom chaos, instill more respect towards the learning environment, and promote attendance.

If suspensions are the only practical option, in-school suspensions are recommended so that the student can remain under school supervision and receive attendance.

Overall, the focus should be on changing the social climate of the school. If students feel respected, safe, and comfortable in their learning environment, then they are more likely to participate in positive reinforcement methods and more regularly attend school.

About CoolSchool Central

CoolSchool Central aims to facilitate the transformation that Changes Futures by using SEL and video modeling. With CoolSchool Central, schools have the opportunity to save funding that can be invested back into the system to continually work towards positive behavioral development for students. Good for schools, good for students. Let’s help make this positive change together!

CoolSchool Central’s mission is to Change Futures by helping public schools create a safe, enjoyable environment where kids are excited about education. Studies show that the two key reasons why children don’t go to school are being afraid of being bullied at school and finding school to be boring. Using animated interactive programs, CoolSchool Central delivers SEL in an easy and engaging way to teach kids how to manage and navigate social interactions – creating truly CoolSchools.

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