One of my students named Dante was Black. He came from a very poor family that lived on an island in the middle of a river. Dante had to take a boat to get to the bus that brought him to school each day. He often arrived hungry, without clean clothes. Although our school was just a mile or two from one of the best beaches on the East coast, Dante had never been there. Like most of the Black students in our school, he believed the beach was not a place he was supposed to go. Dante played football and he was quite talented. The football field was the place where he really shined. He lived to play and was willing to work hard in class to maintain the grades necessary to stay on the team. One day Dante was in English class and he did not have a pencil. The teacher of that class had a zero tolerance policy for being prepared for class. Any student who arrived without a pencil (not a pen) or a specific notebook was required to serve a 30 minute detention. On this particular day there was an away game. Dante knew that if he attended detention he would miss the game. He was supposed to start as quarterback for the first time, so this was a really important game. Dante skipped detention and went to the game. The teacher referred him to the principal for skipping detention. The principal had a zero tolerance policy for skipping detention. He issued a one-day suspension for Dante. The next day, Dante tried to come to school. The security officer knew he was not supposed to be there and brought him to the principal. The principal then gave him a five-day suspension for attempting to come to school and threatened to have him arrested if he showed up on school grounds again. This time Dante complied. By the time he returned to school he had missed a couple of tests which he was not permitted to make up. His grades plummeted and by the end of the first marking period he lost his eligibility to play football. Within a week Dante dropped out of school. All because he forgot to bring his pencil to English class.
While Dante's story is extreme, it is not unique. I wish I could tell you that I never saw anything like this happen to any other student, but that would not be true. I have seen horrible abuses of power by school administrators over and over throughout my three decades as an educator.
Many years later I became an administrator in a district that had a suspension rate of 39% for high school students and a suspension rate of 17% for middle school students. This translated to 1,339 students being suspended in a single year. I considered this a crisis and worked to change it immediately. We took several steps to remedy the problem. First, we defined what behaviors could potentially result in a suspension. These included possession of drugs and weapons, extreme violence (not just a shove in the hallway) and significant, severe disrespect or disruption that could not be remedied through multiple attempts using other efforts. Next we created a procedure to ensure we were only suspending students when it was absolutely necessary to maintain safety and order in the schools. Any administrator who wanted to suspend a student was required to engage in a conversation with a designated central administrator about the incident. Together they debriefed what had happened and why the suspension was necessary. Together they determined the minimum number of days that would be necessary in order to address the issues that had caused the behavior. Finally they determined the re-entry plan for the student which may include restorative meetings with other students or staff, additional supervision for the suspended students, making up work, or revised scheduling. The re-entry plan was intended to ensure the safety of all students, to prevent the behavior from recurring and to help the student back on track. The results were immediate. Our suspension rate for the high school fell to 5% and the middle school rate fell to 3%. Instead of 1,339 students losing their right to an education as had happened in the past, only 141 had that experience. At the same time we reduced the suspensions, we saw a marked decrease in violent and disruptive behaviors. It seemed that FEWER suspensions resulted in BETTER behavior.
We now know that suspensions also hurt "well-behaved" students. The problem in many places may even be evident in elementary schools. Schools that overuse student suspensions create a culture that is oppressive to students. We know that kids need a safe and caring environment in order to learn. When you just throw kids out every time they have a behavioral issue, they feel unsafe and don't believe teachers and administrators care about them.