Mediation

Opinion

Reducing Suspensions Is Not Enough

Max Margolius

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

An interesting thing happened in Miami Dade County Public Schools a few years ago. In the 2015-2016 school year, the district reported zero out of school suspensions—down from 20,000 the year before. School disciplinary referrals as well as juvenile arrests also dropped dramatically. 

On the surface this feels like welcome news, but such a precipitous drop in suspensions raises questions about what is replacing those suspensions. A closer look at the data shows troubling patterns. Unexcused absences nearly doubled in that time, and parents and students report that they are still being excluded from their classrooms. Those exclusions just aren’t being reported as suspensions. 

Miami is not exactly unique in their efforts to rethink discipline. As momentum for discipline reform builds across the country, district mandates to unilaterally eliminate suspensions may place schools in the position of needing to report reduced outcomes, but without the support to implement alternative strategies effectively. 

Eliminating suspensions without providing support and training for alternative approaches, such as restorative practices, does not lead to better experiences for students or teachers.

Focus on the Student, Not the Suspensions

Recent reports out of New York City and Philadelphia suggest that banning suspension may miss the forest by focusing on the trees; that is, in a rush to reduce suspensions, we may lose sight of the reasons for student behavior and the factors that lead teachers to react in a punitive manner. 

In those cities, teachers report that student behavior has gotten worse and incidents of violence are increasing. Simultaneously, students report they are still being removed from their classes, even if those removals are no longer being called suspensions. 

“As momentum for discipline reform builds across the country, district mandates to unilaterally eliminate suspensions may place schools in the position of needing to report reduced outcomes, but without the support to implement alternative strategies effectively.”

By simply eliminating suspension without providing anything in its place, students aren’t given access to any additional support or resources, and teachers lose autonomy and control over their own classrooms. 

In a recent report about how students experience these disciplinary changes, students explained that “Student Success Centers,” designed to be a space for students who struggle with misconduct to learn more adaptive behaviors while receiving academic support, do not offer instruction but rather serve to hold students for prolonged periods of time. 

The same report documents a “lockout” practice, wherein students who are late to class cannot enter and must instead sit in empty classrooms while their scheduled classes take place.

Reports like these suggest that focusing on suspension rates alone may minimize the work required to transform schoolwide approaches to discipline. To fully understand how to implement alternative strategies that benefit both individual students and the entire school community, it is vital to hear from educators involved in successfully implementing new approaches to discipline. 

Supporting Teachers Is Crucial

One way to support schools in shifting disciplinary approaches is to create partnerships with community-based organizations. Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and the Morningside Center in New York City are just two of many examples of organizations that have partnered with districts and schools to offer professional development and, in some instances, facilitate restorative interventions.

Other examples include districts—such as Oakland or Denver—that have provided ongoing training and resources to support teachers as they move to replace suspensions with more inclusive interventions. One thing both of these efforts have in common is their shared recognition of the expertise and resources required to shift disciplinary practices. 

In Minnesota, Educators for Excellence published an Action Guide for schools in the process of switching their approach to discipline. The nine schools that implemented the E4E Action Guide this past year discuss the importance of having engaged and committed school leadership, creative and dynamic utilization of data, and sufficient time and training in order to realize success. 

Those findings align with research from the recent Center for Promise report Disciplined and Disconnected, which found that school leaders needed external support, along with ongoing professional development over the course of multiple years, to build the capacity for successfully implementing more supportive discipline models. 

In addition to training for school personnel, school leaders in the report described the importance of trust for getting everyone on board and building their capacity to successfully implement non-exclusionary discipline practices. 

One noted, “It’s that kind of trust all the way round that has made this so successful, and continues to make it successful. We’re not perfect, right, but [staff are] the ones that come up with ideas, and I allow that latitude.” 

Listen to the Needs of Teachers and Students 

A recent national scan of teacher preparation programs found that very few focus on social emotional skills as part of their curriculum for aspiring teachers. The same is true of restorative practices. 

“By simply eliminating suspension without providing anything in its place, students aren’t given access to any additional support or resources, and teachers lose autonomy and control over their own classrooms.”

While close to 30 states now mandate using a restorative intervention prior to administering a suspension, very few teachers or administrators are trained on how to facilitate a restorative process, much less implement a whole school shift to a restorative mindset. As a result, schools need external support and a longer runway to implementation. 

Mostly, these reports serve as a call for more listening and learning. Without listening to educators and students share their experiences, what they need, their successes, and the barriers that they face, it will be very difficult to provide them with the resources and support necessary for any disciplinary shift to be successful. 

This story is part of a special series on school discipline. Other stories include Six Steps to Implementing Restorative Practices and Three Reasons Exclusionary Discipline Can Cause Students to Drop Out. For even more information, read the report, Disciplined and Disconnected: How Students Experience Exclusionary Discipline in Minnesota and the Promise of Non-Exclusionary Alternatives.

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