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Is It Time to End Suspension as the 'Go-To' Punishment in Schools?

Some schools are finding that promoting positive behavior choices, rather than punishing via suspension, leads to higher graduation rates -- especially among students of color.

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In the 2003–2004 academic year, Baltimore City Public Schools recorded 26,000 suspensions. Six years later, that number had dropped below 10,000, before rising last year to slightly more than 11,000.

Those figures don’t necessarily surprise Jonathan Brice, officer of school support networks for this district of some 84,000 students. He is part of a community-wide team that has gained national attention for its concerted and successful efforts to rein in a disciplinary tool that was getting too much use.

“We’re not as good as we need to be, but we’re significantly better than we were,” Brice says. “It’s a cultural shift away from suspension and toward intervention and prevention. And that’s a sea change.”

That sea change has school districts across the country looking to Baltimore for ways to reduce the number of and the need for student suspensions. Nationally, two decades’ worth of hair-trigger zero-tolerance policies have blighted the records of many students, battered graduation rates and broken trust between many struggling youths and their teachers.

Ultimately, limiting out-of-school suspensions is about two things, says John Di Donato, assistant superintendent for youth development in Bridgeport, Conn., a district that has significantly lowered its suspension rates in recent years. “It’s about believing in kids, and it’s about believing that adults can make a difference.”

Recovering from Zero Tolerance

The dramatic rise of suspension rates can be linked to zero-tolerance policies that took root in schools in the late 1980s. Districts in several states began adopting them to address community fears of weapons and drugs in schools. They were soon expanded to punish lesser infractions, such as fighting, swearing, smoking and causing disruptions.

The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 and the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., fueled the call for automatic zero-tolerance penalties for misbehavior. Occasionally, the policies were even applied to inadvertent rule breaking, such as the suspension of a Pennsylvania kindergartener who took a toy ax to school as part of his firefighter Halloween costume.

Such policies, in large part, are why school suspensions and expulsions have doubled since the 1970s. Despite their seeming popularity, however, zero-tolerance policies have been consistently shown to reinforce rather than extinguish negative behaviors.

Once a low threshold for administrative punishment becomes part of a school’s culture, it can be an easy cudgel to reach for. That is the conclusion of Pedro A. Noguera, a professor of teaching and learning at New York University. Noguera has researched the subject in multiple school districts, especially in the Northeast.

Noguera relates the following story from New Haven, Conn.: A middle school administrator began a professional development session by listing actual reasons teachers gave for sending a student to the office: chewing gum; wearing a hat; forgetting to bring a pencil.

The administrator then went down the list, asking the teachers whether these were legitimate reasons for sending a student to the principal’s office for punishment. In that group setting, no one could or would defend such a choice, though these were the very teachers who had made the referrals.

Baltimore’s suspensions were similarly skewed. While school staff had discretion to handle discipline—in the classroom, in-building detention, etc.—the most common response was to choose out-of-school suspension. More than 60 percent of those suspensions were for minor misconduct, including classroom disruption, disrespect, lack of attendance and similar infractions.

Teachers need to be trained better to give out discipline that’s proportionate to the offense, Noguera contends. “Alternatives are essential if schools are to stop using discipline as a strategy for weeding out those they deem undesirable or difficult to teach, and instead to use discipline to reconnect students to learning.”