The senseless cycle of school suspensions

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We’ve all heard the saying: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Unfortunately, this approach has guided discipline policies in most Washington schools for decades.

Misbehaving students routinely are suspended or expelled — despite overwhelming evidence that such practices don’t work. They don’t improve student behavior and cause greater classroom disruptions down the road. In fact, all leading studies show that student misbehavior tends to escalate with the use of suspensions and expulsions.

Students who get kicked out of school are sent home with no educational support or counseling, only to return hopelessly behind in their classwork and more alienated than when they left.

The result is that these students fall further behind, fail classes, drop out and all too often land in the juvenile justice system. Worsening the problem is the fact that students of color and special education students are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than their peers, even when engaged in the same conduct.

Earlier in January, the federal government issued groundbreaking guidance making clear these discriminatory disciplinary practices are unacceptable. The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education stated emphatically that schools that continue to use practices falling more harshly on students of color will be held accountable under federal civil-rights laws.

Alternative discipline approaches are suggested that are far more effective and less costly than the senseless cycle of suspensions and expulsions.

One of these is restorative discipline. This approach seeks to have students who misbehave take real responsibility for their actions. Students must make amends by apologizing and accepting consequences, such as performing community service or working weekends at the school.

Rather than simply punishing and ostracizing students, restorative discipline addresses the needs of all parties involved — victim, community and offender. Efforts are made to repair the situation and return the student back to his or her classroom as soon as possible.

This approach is proving to be successful in several school districts.

This kind of discipline reform is sorely needed in Washington, where many children are kept out of school for minor offenses that can and should be handled inside schools. Some of these offenses are ill-defined and open to differing interpretations, such as inappropriate behavior and defiance of school authority. Other offenses are as minor as cellphone or dress-code violations.

In times gone by, wisecracks or insubordination were understood as adolescent rebellion and addressed accordingly. Now, students can expect to be suspended, sometimes for days or weeks, missing essential learning time in the classroom.

Too many students never catch up, particularly those already struggling academically. This leads to a domino effect of disastrous consequences that we all pay for in the forms of poverty, violence, and prison costs.

Yes, there is a need for discipline, particularly in the cases of serious and dangerous offenses. But we must also work to create positive school climates that keep students learning and provide opportunities for them to understand accountability and responsibility.

By taking a smarter approach, we can better ensure equal access to public education for all students, and a system that implements discipline fairly to all. And, we can better ensure safe and productive learning environments for students and teachers.

Linda Mangel is education policy director for the ACLU of Washington state. She has practiced civil-rights law for over 20 years, including at the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education.

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