Speaking Out: The Consequence of Suspensions
Send him home. He can’t be at school if he is going to act that way.” I have heard it time and time again in the course of my seven years of teaching. Unfortunately, I regret that there have been times when I was happy to see a student leave the classroom for a day or two, serving an out-of-school suspension after a day of insubordination and grave disrespect. School handbooks state that students who choose to not follow school rules will be punished with in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, or even expulsions. But what are these so-called consequences reinforcing for students?
Consider Tom. He is a bright student who is grade-level equivalent in all areas, but needs a little assistance in math. It isn’t that he is incapable of the work, but he has been suspended so many times that his educational background is similar to a checkerboard. His attendance records for his seventh-grade year from December to May indicate he missed 48 days of school. Of those 48 days, he was suspended out of school 42 days. Clearly, Tom isn’t learning anything, nor is he implementing a new or improved behavior pattern as a result of the countless out-of-school suspensions. In fact, the exact opposite is happening. He has learned through experience that if he wants a day off from school he can act up until he is sent home. If this is his educational experience in the seventh grade, is it logical to imagine that he will ever even graduate?
Students who miss an obscene amount of school naturally fall behind in academic coursework. Although they might be able to complete the required homework missed during a suspension, they miss the structured instruction presented in the class. As a result, students miss out on experiences, exposure that might be essential for testing, future concepts, and grade-level advancement. When they eventually are sent back to the classroom after a suspension, they run the risk of feeling so far behind academically that they resort to acting out to be dismissed from class again. Thus, the wheels of the cyclical suspension bus begin to turn.
State laws require students to be in attendance. So why are we continuously kicking them out? Certain situations mandate suspensions from school: weapons, illegal activity, jeopardizing the safety of fellow students and staff, threats, plans to self-harm, etc. For these stated specific occurrences, schools have set protocols that must be followed to maintain the safety and well-being of students and staff. However, we are continuously suspending the same students over and over for disruptive behavior, insubordination, and refusing to work while in school—the less-severe behaviors.
Nowhere in our job expectations does it say to exercise low-tolerance and send students home when they are displaying what we feel are undesired behaviors. All the while, the suspension is punitive, not consequential. Consequential suspension implies that the student has learned something from the end result and the same behavior will not occur again. We, as educators, have to teach the correct behaviors in the confines of the school as well as continue to offer rigorous academic support for all students.
First, identify the problem. Are the students truly acting out to express disrespect or noncompliance for the stated behavioral expectations? Or, perhaps, the issue is really that disruption is a result of disengagement.
If we wish for students to behave a certain way or display certain behaviors, they must also help write the parameters and expectations of the classroom. This goes beyond asking students on the first day of school what rules they would like in their class. These rules are generally vague and ambiguous (e.g., “Be kind. Be prepared. Be respectful.”); they hold no weight on behavior. Instead, students need to dialogue about what they expect of themselves and each other, reflecting about how to incorporate expectations in the classroom.
Once these expectations are agreed upon, they must be taught, modeled, and role-played. Teachers should also present feedback to students as a means of reinforcing the desired behavior and meeting the set expectations. If feedback is not offered, the desired behavior will not last long.
Rethinking In-School Suspensions
Now that I’ve addressed out-of-school suspensions, let’s consider in-school suspension programs. Students who have jeopardized the educational rights of others are often housed here with little to no academic support or formal instruction. Schools cut costs by employing classified staff to supervise these students. Starting now, schools need to hire and retain qualified teachers in this capacity to provide the instruction these students deserve. The consequence of an in-school suspension should be isolation from peers—not meaningless worksheets. If students are provided with the instruction they need while serving in-school suspensions, we have broken the cycle of sending them back to classes and feeling lost in the content.
Granted, funding will, undoubtedly, be the biggest issue for ensuring highly qualified certified teachers serve as moderators for in-school suspensions. However, if all the teachers are required to spend a class period or two per week tutoring students in their specific domain, students will receive the quality education they deserve. Not to mention, I am willing to speculate that if teachers were made responsible for providing the instruction to students serving an in-school suspension, the amount of office referrals would decrease.
Students who are assigned in-school suspensions need to have the opportunity to relearn and role-play the desired behavior. Implementing a schoolwide protocol or management system will certainly assist in this process. Students will hear the same dialogue in the classroom, in the administrator’s office, and during their suspension. This requires that the in-school suspension teacher is aware of the steps and actions required for the desired behavior, and will teach, model, and role-play with the student prior to him or her returning to the classroom. Once students recognize the consistency of the expected behavior, they will be less likely to act out against the rules/protocols.
As educators, we are charged with providing learning opportunities and lessons for students. Looking beyond the textbooks and pedagogy, we are also responsible for teaching the behaviors desired of our nation’s youths. When a student exhibits disrespect, disparaging language, and classroom disruptions, teachers must first look within their own classrooms to ensure they have taught, modeled, and role-played the desired behavior. If an office referral is still required, administrators need to consider the lesson learned in sending a student home with an out-of-school suspension and resort to keeping the student in school, learning the academics and the behavior required to be successful, not only in school, but in society.
Fran Pokorski is dean of ninth-grade students at Bellevue West High School in Bellevue, Nebraska.