Too Many Suspensions an Overreaction?

Is out-of-school suspension always the answer for misbehaving students? Some studies suggest that such punishment can not only be detrimental to a student's learning progress but actually does little or nothing to curb inappropriate behavior. Perhaps it's time that schools should consider alternatives when it comes to punishing students for what many might consider to be minor infractions.

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Punishment to Fit the Crime

Does making an obscene gesture or using inappropriate language warrant sending a student off school grounds for one or more days? Many schools seem to believe so; in Virginia, for instance, more than 90,000 students suffered such punishment during the 2010-11 school year. And some of the top reasons for the punishment were the aforementioned behaviors.

In Virginia schools during the 2009-10 school year, 30% of suspensions were due to defiance or disrespect, 19% for obscene language or gestures and 22% for disruption. Less than 10% of suspensions were the result of more serious actions such as bullying, threats or assault.

Recently, the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, published a study titled Educate Every Child: Promoting Positive Solutions to School Discipline in Virginia. One of the conclusions of the study is that schools would benefit from adopting the Effective Schoolwide Discipline (ESD) program, which reduces suspensions and expulsions.

A 'Proven Alternative'

The Effective Schoolwide Discipline program in Virginia is an assessment/intervention plan that has been called a 'proven alternative' to existing suspension policies. Schools that utilize the system (as few as 12% of Virginia schools currently do) report not only fewer suspensions, but fewer behavioral issues overall. Between 2007 and 2010, schools that used the ESD system saw a whopping 75% decrease in out-of-school suspensions!

The system works by establishing a common code of behavior and applying intervention methods to those students unable to meet these standards. Interventions are tailored to each individual school; for instance, if one school is experiencing bad behavior in cafeterias, then cafeteria personnel is given necessary training. In this way, inappropriate or even dangerous behavior could potentially be stopped before it even starts.

The state is pushing for the remaining 88% of schools to adopt this disciplinary program. Training and even incentives have been offered, but so far the program, despite its effectiveness, remains sadly underutilized.

Other Ways to Curb Suspensions

More than three million students are suspended across the United States each year. Quite possibly other states or school districts have programs similar to Virginia's ESD, but what about those that don't? Are there other ways in which schools can administer punishment for students who misbehave?

Community service could be one alternative to out-of-school suspensions. In-school suspensions that include tutoring and behavior modification procedures can also be effective. Other suggested alternatives include counseling, anger control courses or parental involvement in disciplinary responses.

Schools that might consider alternatives to suspensions and expulsions would likely need to reassess their zero tolerance policies. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as much as 94% of schools have such policies. But it would seem that not all behaviors, or indeed not every student, should receive a predetermined method of punishment. Perhaps if all schools adopted an ESD model, we could see a national dip in suspension statistics and an upward trend in effective disciplinary actions.

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