Posts Tagged suspensions

School Suspensions Model the Wrong Behavior for Students

Published by — By our actions, we teach intolerance.


Last week we looked at reasons why kids misbehave — how sometimes they can’t or they won’t act in community-appropriate ways.  Whether it’s a choice for them or not, it’s always a big pain for the people around them.

So this week we’ll look at the most common response to misbehavior, which is best described as a sort of banishment.  It’s punishment, yes, but specifically an aggressive cutting-off of being in relation to the offender.  Such ways of rejection include belittling, berating, humiliating, isolating, suspending, expelling — basically trying to hurt the kid into compliance.  In short, we kick ‘em out.

And it has become such a habit, we do so mindlessly.  At least we did until the relatively recent attention to the school-to-prison pipeline.  The berating and so forth start before actually suspending the kid, which is the mouth of that pipeline.  And while anyone can understand why teachers want disruptive kids removed from class, it’s harder to fathom other unexamined knee-jerk practices such as kicking kids out of school for not being in school.

Schools take offense at bunking, and offense deserves punishment.

In 2012 the fine researcher Robert Balfanz raised the nation’s consciousness regarding chronic absenteeism in the report The Importance of Being in School.  “Chronic absenteeism” is defined as missing at least 10% of school time.  As officials worked on reducing the problem, they found that kids might be absent less if they ceased to be punished for the offense.  In Rhode Island, as elsewhere, students were routinely suspended for skipping school.  It’s like a bad joke:  If you’re not coming to school, kid, let’s make it official.  But no one seemed to notice that kicking kids out of school for not being in school made no sense.

During the 2010-11 school year, more than half of all suspensions in Rhode Island high schools were related to attendance — including skipping class and detention.  In 2012-13, the year after RI passed legislation outlawing suspensions for absenteeism, the total number of high-school suspensions of all kinds dropped almost by half.

Kicking people out of school and out of society reflects a community norm.

In theory, tolerance is super-important to American culture.  We value inclusion.  We welcome diverse people into our community.  We want children to share, get along, be accepting of the new kid, the odd kid, the English language learner.

But by our actions, we teach intolerance.  By our actions, kids know that when they are offended or harmed, the proper response is to retaliate and inflict some hurt themselves.  Yes, they get in trouble, but they see few alternatives modeled for them.  Schools and parents get super irate about bullying, and if bullies are caught, or even accused, they get bullied themselves by disciplinarian adults.  We teach punishment.

So kids grow up hoping they are on the end of meting out the punishment.

Typically at the beginning of the school year, teachers detail their classroom expectations to the kids, post them on the wall, and explain how they will be enforced.  Restorative practices always involve the community’s voice as a whole, because it encourages cooperation.  So restorative classrooms create the norms or rules as a class, kids and teacher together.  When the kids are asked what consequences might be for violating the class norms they just worked out together, their answers are usually just short of the guillotine, or tar-and-feathering.  Even “bad” kids have no empathy for future offenders; they are among the most eager to contribute harsh suggestions.  But they’re only parroting back what they learned from adults.  They need help dialing back their firm grounding in kick-out techniques to imagine dopier little consequences like doing push-ups or singing a song for 30 seconds.

An acquaintance of mine lives across from a large elementary school.  When windows are open during warm days, she hears constant yelling.  This is not secret abuse, but acceptable behavior.  Though some members of the community may not like it, they don’t complain.  The message to the kids is that this is community-appropriate behavior.

Considering that much of the world considers the U.S. to be the land of innovation, our schools suffer a surprising poverty of imagination when it comes to disciplining kids.  No evidence supports the efficacy of punishment.  And it certainly doesn’t win kids’ cooperation.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Instead of School Suspensions, Let’s Listen to Kids

Published by — Kicking out the disruptive kids is convenient.  But what do we, or they, learn from it?


Allow me to say right off the top that I believe each out-of-school suspension is a symptom of a mental or social issue.  I’d call them symptoms of disease, but some are more like sniffles.

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper sparked awareness not only of the frequency of suspensions, but also of the glaring racial disparities among those suspended.  Some states are using legislation to curtail these kick-out practices that appear to be the starting point of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Restorative Practices/Justice lens asks us to take a step back from the offending incident itself to consider the bigger picture.  What does the offense tell us about the community as a whole — school, neighborhood, family?  What contributed to it?  A kid who has damaged property, behaved abusively towards a teacher or gotten into a fight must take responsibility for her action.  But what does the behavior mean?

School staff ask about what happened, but rarely do they go deeply into the matter.  Suspension is a quick, time-honored response.  But its convenience cuts off any chance of understanding the kid, the symptom, or the conditions that nurtured the yucky behavior.  I once heard a restorative guidance counselor ask a kid if his disruptive behavior was trying to say something.  Without hesitation, he said:  “We have no food.  My dad’s gone.  I’m not sure where.”  What’s a suspension going to accomplish?

Kicking kids out does not teach them how to behave in a community-appropriate manner.  Nor does more time in front of the TV or video game get to the root of a mental or familial problem.  Sometimes better classroom management, or more engaging instruction, would ward off unwanted behavior.  And sometimes, to protect the other kids’ learning, teachers feel they have no choice but to kick a kid out of their class.  But usually, suspensions banish the problem only temporarily.

Four reasons why kids misbehave:

The first two are opposite sides of the same coin:

1.  Learned behavior — For example, many urban students live in families and communities where they are sworn at constantly.  School staff, not uncommonly suburban themselves, can easily be offended by kids’ hideous language and aggressive demeanor.  It’s ugly, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s learned behavior.  By all means, teach them why it’s necessary to unlearn it.  Help them understand that it should not spill into schools or the workplace.  A restorative question might be:  “Does this language (or other behavior) happen at home?”  If so, it’s private and needs to stay at home.

2.  Unlearned Behavior, which is to say social skills not yet mastered –  The occasional kid who comes to school eating with her hands has never been taught to use a fork.  More often, when kids haven’t been taught to take turns, they talk so intrusively as to be maddening.  Others throw punches at the most minor offense because they’ve been taught to fight for survival.

3.  Trauma — We have all experienced some degree of trauma in our lives — a car accident, death in the family, job loss.  Healthy people manage to respond in more and less healthy ways.  But kids, especially those most suffering from chaotic urban poverty, often act out as a way of expressing their distress.  I knew a 6th grader who occasionally howled uncontrollably during the class.  If you knew her backstory, you’d howl too.  And yelling at traumatized kids often sets them off.  Kicking them out effectively blames the kid for being triggered.

4.  Brat behavior — Yes, some kids get away with whatever they can.  I was one of them.  To avoid a boring Spanish class, I snuck away with friends to smoke cigarettes.  When we got caught, we lost privileges that I wanted back.  I knew I ran a risk of consequences, but getting kicked out would have been an invitation to rebel yet more.

No one likes rotten, undisciplined manners and social skills. 

But yelling, punishing, humiliating, lecturing, and all forms of trying to hurt the kid into compliance, do not improve social skills.  They don’t calm the traumatized child.  They don’t help the brat see her arrogant ways.  They are the opposite of listening and modeling behavior we want to see.

Being heard is a powerful, palpable feeling.  Suspensions shut the kid up.  But what is the behavior trying to tell us?  Unless we listen, we don’t know.  Traditional public schools have not been expected to take time to hear kids’ voices, issues, and frustrations.  As a result, problems and rebellion inevitably fester.  We don’t have to believe everything they say, but good heavens:  ask.  Listen. In a healthy community, all voices must be heard — kids, staff, families community members.

Because when community members — of a classroom, a school, a neighborhood — are satisfied that they’re being heard, they’ll establish trust.  Yes, creating ways to hear each person is a heavy lift.  But it is precisely what will end suspensions as we know them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Give Students a Voice So They Can Improve Their Own School

Published by — Working on a system to help troubled students stay in school, but be accountable to the community.


Regina Winkfield, Principal of E-Cubed Academy in Providence, went into a minor tailspin when district budget cuts eliminated her Student Resource Officer (SRO).  Of course, SROs are a double-edged sword.  As police officers, carrying guns, they’re sworn to arrest anyone engaged in illegal doings, including fighting.  SROs contributed to America’s soaring suspension and expulsion rates.  But even if her SRO wasn’t a great solution, Winkfield wondered how she’d cope with the rough student behavior besetting her urban high school minus that help.

The answer to that question turned out to be the kids themselves.  But not according to any intentional strategy.  While learning about civic engagement and advocacy, E-Cubed students found their “voice.”  As Junior Roxanne says, “everyone is getting along better because we have more voice now.  We’re empowered to talk to the adults.”

About four years ago, an opportunity quietly emerged.  Two Brown University students, Scott Warren and Anna Ninan, invented what is now the national organization Generation Citizen (GC).  Distressed by young people’s bad rap for disengagement from their communities and from political life in general, the civic-minded pair had an idea: teach teens how governments make decisions by helping them work on their own community or social issues.  They recruited college-student volunteers, called “Democracy Coaches,” to weave civics lessons into discussions of what specific community improvement could be accomplished and how.

Twice a week, a Democracy Coach worked in John Healy’s history class.

The City of Providence had never painted crosswalks on the busy streets surrounding the relatively-new school building.  The school community had complained for years.  Crosswalks were a clear, modest ask.  With instruction, students understood the relevant powers that be and managed to guilt the City into doing its duty.

Winkfield rolls her eyes musing that kids accomplished what adults had failed to do, and not for want of trying.  That day, watching those workers paint white lines, a light lit for her.  Supporting students’ voice in practical matters not only got things done, but got kids engaged.  “After all,” she says gesturing dramatically at the school’s mission statement, “we’re supposed to be a student-centered community.”

In the fall of 2013, she dropped hints to students about tackling their high suspension rate.  The kids’ research found that in 2011-2012, their small school of fewer than 400 students had nearly 300 suspensions, or an average of 1.65 suspensions every day – the third highest rate in the district.

I spoke with a group of these newly-engaged citizens about their accomplishments.  Now a University of Rhode Island student, Garren Jansezian took time off his spring break to crow with his younger colleagues about their impact on the school.  “We wanted to know what the implications were of those suspensions.  Was there a cycle of delinquency?  Were the problems of home being carried into the school?  We wanted to work on a system that would help [troubled] students stay in school, but be accountable to themselves and the community.”

Furthermore, after surveying their fellow students, they found that many had been suspended, mostly for petty vandalism, class disruptions, or tardiness.  Really?

Surely there were the alternatives.

The Democracy Coach gave them articles about other schools using restorative justice and peer mediation programs.  The students settled on starting a peer jury system designed to interrupt the zero-tolerance approach enshrined in the district’s Code of Conduct.  They developed a research paper, a process and several forms.

With their respectful voices and advocacy skills, they sold the idea to the principal, the faculty, and their fellow students.  They got the green light, but more impressively, 30 students applied to be peer jurors.

Angela, now a senior, took one of the first cases.  “(The student) had talked back to a teacher.  We all knew he’d done what he’d done.  Guilt was already determined.  But then the student was allowed to tell his side of the story.  We determined that the offense was not so severe that he should go to Ms. Winkfield for suspension.  Then we told him what he had to do to make it right.  At the end he said thank you.  I liked helping my peers not get suspended.”

In another case, a kid who trashed the bathroom avoided suspension by working with the janitor to get it cleaned up.  Yes, he was reluctant and resentful at first, but sucked it up and let himself be held accountable.  As Jansezian says, “Second chances are powerful things.”

Winfield concludes, “We needed a paradigm shift.  It’s easy to suspend a student, but it’s a lot harder to change a mindset.  For the students, it’s not about snitching, it’s about working together.”

Diana, a senior, says, “My mindset changed.  I look at people who do bad things over and over again, people I used to think of as bad.  Now I think, what’s happening to them that they’re getting in trouble?”

Fatoumata, a Junior, says:  “Voice is everything.  No matter how small, your voice has a deep meaning.”

For the record, they’ve only had one fight this year and a handful of suspensions.  With great pleasure, the students I spoke with took full credit for this minor miracle.  The adults beamed at them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Create More Disciplinary Options Than just Suspensions and Cops

Published by — “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s plate — and postpones any real solution.

If you look into school-suspension data — state or local — you’ll find a bunch of numbers that tell you nothing about the severity of the offenses.  You’ll find high rates clustered in vague categories like “disorderly conduct” and “subordination/disrespect.”  Those could mean anything from mouthing off to a teacher to stealing a cell phone.  And what do suspensions for “assault” mean?  Assault is an arrestable offense, as are stealing, possession of illegal substances, sexual harassment and others.  Not everyone knows that often schools often tuck low-level arrestable offenses into suspension data.

But what should a school do with such offenses?  Many would insist the police be called.  Yes, if the kid has been outright violent or has already thumbed his nose at second chances, schools have little choice but to call the cops.  But generally, when kids do largely stupid things, the last thing most educators want is to involve police.

Involvement with the justice system can wreck any kid’s future.  Colleges ask about convictions, for example.  Even when kept quiet, arrests have a way of becoming fairly public.  Court proceedings are hard to hide.  Higher-income kids might get costly lawyers to help them, but a low-income kid entering the judicial system can seal an ugly fate.  The justice system puts poor kids on the assembly line for future prisoners known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  Most urban school adults resist — thank God! — adding more misery to the life of a kid who was born without a break in the first place.

Two bad options.  Neither of which holds the kid accountable.

So, schools can:  1.  Kick the kid to the cops.  Really harsh.  Potentially devastating.  Or 2.  Kick the kid out on suspension, which is basically a vacation on a couch in front of a TV.

There’s a ridiculous gap between the two.  But all forms of kick-out culture are super convenient.  “You’re outta here” gets the problem off the school’s immediate plate and onto someone else’s.  It also postpones getting a real solution.  As problems grow, solutions get harder — stupid experimentation with drugs can grow into a tough habit to break.  So in the long run, kicking out can become wildly expensive.  Look no further than America’s prison system with its worlds-record-breaking numbers of inmates.

Conferencing assembles a crisis-intervention team.

Schools in Baltimore, MD, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere are starting to introduce restorative-justice “conferencing” as another option.  If the offenders and their families take responsibility for their actions and come to conference, the school won’t call the cops, for now.  Victims, when there are such, also must agree.  If the parties want police involvement instead, that’s their choice.  But international experience shows that conferences are highly preferable and cost-effective.

Conferences stop the assembly line to gather a small group of family and allies, and perhaps a social-service support or two, to unpack the situation.  How did we get here?  What’s going on at home, in the community, among the offender’s friends that she would come to school high or boost a kid’s laptop?  Conference participants help each other understand how to change the circumstances so the offense won’t happen again.

Ideally, the offender collaborates with parents, victims, and other participants to develop restitution plans.  When and if the plan is completed, congratulations Kid!  You’ve got a clean slate.

Currently, schools don’t have the capacity to do this.

The problem is that conferencing takes time and labor — and sometimes tons of patience with parents who prove to be a bigger problem than the kid.  A facilitator has to make the calls, get the participants clear about the rules and consequences, and then monitor progress on the restitution plan.  Hardest of all is building partnerships with community members and businesses to create restitution options.  If the kid punches a hole in the wall, best she learn to drywall and fix the mess she made.  Sometimes kids need a fat reminder they live in a community that doesn’t appreciate cleaning up after their messes.

Most schools are already stretched to the max.  In some countries, conferencing is run by police departments, but America’s police are generally so punitive we wouldn’t want them doing the work.  The press, researchers, and advocacy groups make a lot of noise about the school-to-prison pipeline.  It wrecks kids, after all, along with the future workforce and public-services budgets.  But few states or municipalities want to put resources into alternatives.

This is changing.  Recently the Central Falls School Department received a National Institute of Justice grant to get a conferencing system up and running.  They’ll collaborate on this with 4 schools in other districts.  I am intimately involved in this initiative.   We’re trying to design a system that holds kids accountable, but in a way that helps them not just stay out of trouble, but get onto a good track.  We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.  It wrecks kids.

Please, wish us the best of luck.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Colorado Cuts School Exclusions, Racial Disparities Persist

Published by — Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills.

Last year in Colorado, a group called Padres Y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United) managed to get their Legislature to pass the “Smart School Discipline Law.”  Now schools must, by law, userestorative justice or other disciplinary policies before resorting to the harsh punishments of suspension, expulsion, or at worst, referral to law-enforcement.”  In other words, Colorado’s schools had to turn down the spigot that streams kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.  Very civilized.

Then this past March the parents’ group reported that in less than a year, suspensions were down statewide by a healthy 10 percent and expulsions by a stunning 25 percent.  How lovely to live in a state whose schools would jump on such an initiative so enthusiastically.  The results were uneven among schools, so some apparently didn’t bother.  But most did.

However — and this is big — the pattern of racial disparities did not change.  Reductions were roughly the same across all groups, so the all-too-familiar gaps remained the same.  While upsetting, it’s no big surprise.  Much about school kick-out culture is just silly.  But there are other deeper, culturally-rooted issues.  I’ll touch on each.

Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills. 

Rhode Island’s suspension data, which I know intimately, is typical of urbanized states and easy to summarize.  Of the 39 offenses that gets kids suspended71 percent of them last year were for these 5 offenses:

*  Attendance-Cut/Skipped Class

*  Attendance-Cut/Skipped Detention

*  Insubordination/Disrespect

*  Attendance/Left School Grounds

*  Disorderly Conduct

Yes, disrespect can get ugly.  But in the scheme of things, these offenses are pretty small potatoes.  Like the national data, RI’s suspensions reveal that real problems — drug-dealing, violence — are quite rare.  But if kids mouth off or avoid class, they get an awful lot of vacations on the couch in front of the TV.  They learn nothing.

Until this past year, Rhode Island schools suspended kids for bunking school.  Yep, let’s make the problem worse.

Not to disparage their feat, but I’m betting the go-getter Colorado schools merely took on the task, at last, of dumping such counter-productive policies.  Kids greatly prefer TV to being held accountable for their behavior.  It’s super-convenient to toss a misbehaving kid out of school, while it’s a bit of work to treat brat behavior as a teachable moment.  Colorado is showing that schools can find productive solutions to obnoxious behavior.

Changing racial disparities will be a heavier lift. 

Race is highly correlated with poverty.  So no, the racial disparities that are driven by aggressive street culture are not going to disappear soon.  Schools don’t have to make things worse with kick-out culture.  But it’s understandable and super-common that low-income families who struggle to survive teach their kids jungle-survival skills.

Recently a doe-eyed 8th grader talked about being suspended constantly in her old school, mainly for fighting.  This past September her family moved from one poor city to another, and she began attending a school that uses restorative practices.  She told funny stories about her beginnings as a hellion who was flunking everything, but then worked with school adults — Guidance, social services and others — who helped her take charge of the behavior that was getting her nowhere.  With mixed glee and chagrin she confessed “I liked fighting.  But I was getting an 8 in science,” out of 100.  As though it were miraculous, she enthused, “Now I’m getting an 86 in science!”  Then she took a deep breath, sighed and said, “But my dad doesn’t really get it.”

Actually, Dad is furious about her becoming a peaceful good student.  Like millions of American urban kids, she’s been growing up on seriously mean streets.  So her father taught her to fight first and ask questions later.  In effect, a positive school culture came between her and her dad.  Dad’s buy-in is still very much a work in progress.

Even so, she’s a success story.  Many aren’t.  Low-income homes and ‘hoods too often steep kids in hostile, foul-mouthed environments, so where on earth would they learn otherwise unless someone took the trouble to teach them?  At urban schools, street culture collides with the values of building academic skills to gain credentials, degrees and skilled jobs.  Kicking kids out puts them back where they learned to swear and fight in the first place.

But the Colorado schools are on their way, impressively.  Surely they’ll get increasingly adept at teaching community-appropriate behavior.  Silly suspensions will fade.  But cultural issues will persist because they’re embedded in the communities themselves.  The hard problems will require working closely with the parents and community.  And that will take time, effort and resources.

No school should put up with rotten behavior.  But kicking kids out just postpones the real work.  Colorado’s gutsy law will provide rich lessons for the rest of the states.  The sooner the better.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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