John Monfredo: Suspending Suspensions – A Critical Examination
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Just last month President Obama’s administration issued sweeping, but nonbinding recommendations, in dealing with suspensions and urged educators across the country to move away from practices that suspend students for minor infractions. The recommendations encourages schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions.
Here in Massachusetts Governor Patrick signed into law “An Act Relative to Students Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School.” This legislation ensures that students may no longer be removed from school without the hope of an education. School districts must ensure that students who are excluded from school are able to continue to make academic progress which includes providing alternative educational services as we do in the Worcester Public Schools.
The law will go into effect this July. At the present time the state is taking public opinions until March 7th before it provides guidelines to the districts in Massachusetts. At a conference last month, State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester urged educators to find a balance between preserving students rights and maintaining a safe and orderly environment for other students to learn.
Suspensions in Worcester
Just recently the issue of suspensions was discussed at the Worcester Public School Standing Committee on Governance and Employee issues. It was an agenda item that I had filed due to the high rate of suspensions taking place in our district. Our schools, like many other urban systems, does have a high suspension rate but certainly attempts to strike a balance on the safety and the needs of the students. In looking at some of the suspensions that have occurred in Worcester: cell phone use, failure to follow directions, forgery, leaving school without permission, cutting class, truancy, and verbal assault to others, the question is do they merit an out of school suspension or could these infractions have been handled differently?
Worcester does need to review its high suspension rate for research continues to demonstrate that so –called zero tolerance policies and out of school suspensions and expulsions that are used too readily are ineffective deterrents to inappropriate behavior and are harmful and counterproductive to the student, the family, the school district and the community as a whole.
What are the alternatives?
So what can be done? Could we consider alternatives for the less egregious offenses such as in-school suspension, after-school detention, Saturday detention and out-of-school detention in places where students are still required to show up every day and continue their schoolwork? All these arrangements have the advantage that educators can still keep track of the students and monitor their progress. Simply leaving them up to their own devices only increases the chances they will get into trouble.
In addition, let’s not forget the human factor. Let’s encourage a caring relationship between students and teachers and have a mentor, tutor or a buddy to assist those students identified as “at risk.” In so many cases those suspended students have not been successful in school and due to low self-esteem are “turned” off to school . Studies have shown that having at least one positive adult role model in a young person’s life is an enormous protective factor. This in turn can help the individual succeed despite other risk factors such as poverty and a stressful home environment. Are there mentors within the Worcester community who could lend a helping hand?
As for the district it needs to review classroom-management training and teacher education programs as a way of attacking the problem of too many out-of-school suspensions and office referrals, actions that according to the data shows that they disproportionately affect African-American, Latino, and male students and those who have disabilities.
Changing the cultural norm
Good discipline is essential to academic success. Good discipline is also critical for creating a safe, respectful learning environment, where all members of a school community can focus on learning and teaching. Perhaps most importantly, good discipline is essential to the emotional, social, and moral development of children.
The district does have a positive behavioral intervention system program called PBIS (a researched based behavioral management program) and its purpose is to encourage and reward good behavior. Perhaps there is a need to review the process and be sure that it is being implemented effectively in our schools. The program is mainly used in the elementary schools.
On the high school level in Worcester there are no schools involved in PBIS but there is no reason why administration along with the high school principals can’t look into this program and see if it might meet the needs of their school. In addition, if we are to reduce the suspension rate, we as a community need to consider the many challenges and the number of students in each high school. Many schools have special programs for disruptive students but lack the additional services to meet their needs. Therefore, additional alternative programs and extra personal need to be added to the school staff. We may all agree with the intent of the new law but the challenge is to assist the schools with the needed resources.
Also, the district should examine conflict de-escalation training for its staff. Programs need to teach staff and students to recognize and to disengage from escalating conflict. A great deal of time is spent on professional development in academics but perhaps some additional time needs to be spent on management techniques.
We live in a negative society and our schools need help to change that culture. There is a body of research that indicates positive, promising effects on student behavior in school. If they are to be effective, these “foundations” must be implemented in such a way as to become a normal part of that school’s culture. One of the most effective tools that I used as a principal was contacting parents with good news. I called or wrote to parents and had my staff do the same. I still remember parents being flabbergasted that I was calling them with good news about their child. It was great for the parent and even better for the student. Would that help with suspensions? Building a child’s self-esteem and working on him/her being successful in the classroom is a winning combination.
The bottom line is that every school must take on a positive approach and come up with a plan to change the culture of the building and work together to solve the problem in a positive way.
Related Slideshow: MA School Districts With The Most Suspensions
Here are the 20 Massachusetts public school systems with the highest number of out of school suspensions, from lowest to highest. The data were collected by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary School Education, and refer to the 2011-12 school year. Data represent the number of total suspensions, not the number of individual students suspended. Dropout reates indicated the percentage of students, grades 9-12, who dropped out of school between July 1 and June 30 prior to the listed year and did not return before October 1. Both in school and out of school suspension rates indicate the percentage of students receiving one or more of the respective suspensions. All data are self reported by school districts.
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