Suspensions are stupid and that's not all that's wrong with them

Suspensions are stupid – not to mention discriminatory and ineffective.

Suspensions are for adults, not for kids. There are times when kids make serious mistakes and judgment errors.  Statistically, boys, especially boys of color and boys with learning differences, appear to make more of the mistakes that bother adults most – getting disciplined, detention or suspensions. To what effect?  I don’t believe that boys are making more mistakes than girls – but their mistakes are more obvious and bothersome to adults – pushing, fighting, cursing – than girls who shun, manipulate and ostracize.

People learn from facing the consequences for their actions.  Or do they?  The entire premise of the US criminal justice system is that the probability and magnitude of punishment will deter crime.  And yet, our country has the highest percentage of incarcerated adults in western society and doesn’t have the corresponding low crime rate.  Furthermore, recidivism is very high among incarcerated US adults so it seems they did not learn from the consequence of prison.

Suspensions and detention are the academic version of incarceration. The child is separated, for a period of time, to atone for their errors. And studies are proving that just like prison, it doesn’t improve behavior either.  In fact, it worsens it by grouping together kids who are struggling with impulsivity, anger or something else. 

Even more frustrating is students in Special Education (all 13 categories) have twice as much probability of receiving a suspension than students without IDEA qualified disabilities (US Department of Education) – this does not include students covered by Section 504. In fact, one of every two students with a Learning Disability (and including AD/HD or other behavioral diagnoses) faced a school disciplinary action in 2011 (National Center for Learning Disabilities)

Suspensions can exacerbate anxiety and learning by keeping the child from education – and if the child is struggling in school, exacerbating feelings of shame often manifesting as troublesome behavior.

Summing up a variety of studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics maintains, “out-of-school suspension...[is] counterproductive to the intended goals, rarely if ever [is] necessary, and should not be considered as appropriate discipline in any but the most extreme and dangerous  circumstances…

The evidence against suspensions is mounting, resulting in school districts changing policies.  For example, the School Board city of Oakland, CA just banned suspensions for “willful defiance”  in exchange for more focus on why students are behaving a certain way. 

San Francisco and Marin County have done so as well.  And my local suburban schools have dramatically reduced suspension but have not yet eliminated it as a practice.

San Francisco public schools began widespread use of restorative practices four years ago and has watched suspensions shrink by 49 percent.”  - Seattle Times, 1/24/15

Suspension is for the adults – particularly for the lynch mob.  It’s to be able to say – to parents or our colleagues and community – “we took action.”  We followed the behavior policy and that child has been “held accountable.” It is a demonstration of raw power – we have the power to remove you – not of justice. Administrators admit that suspensions and detentions rarely do anything productive. Suspensions don’t address the environment or social circumstances that led to the issue. Administrators need to determine if they believe that recess skirmishes where no one is seriously harmed represent anything other than children dealing with conflict – not significant threats to school safety.

As parents, we need to support our administrators in using children’s mistakes as opportunities to learn.  The best example is “restorative discipline” where the students involved are individually or collectively coached to reflect on the incident, talk through how their actions impacted other people without threat of recrimination, identify what happened for them and talk about how to deal with that situation in the future, determine how to make amends and then make them.  This approach does not appease the lynch mob.  No one is drawn and quartered. No one is publicly humiliated. Instead, students learn how their choices impact their community.  And they learn to privately approach people they’ve upset and genuinely apologize – often the hardest and most impactful action. 

Interestingly, in many cities in the US, the same concept is the approach for first time offenders and non-violent offenders.  And their recidivism is dramatically lower than ours while crime rates fall. Isn’t it time that we replace a failed, counter productive model with something that ultimately creates a safer and more peaceful society?