Nearly 3.5 million students were suspended in U.S. schools during the 2011-12 school year. 1.2 million of those students were Black.
Who gets suspended?
Students can be suspended for a variety of serious incidents like fights, conflict with teachers, poor attendance, and other serious issues. However, they are also being suspended for things like not wearing the correct uniform or not having the correct haircut. More and more, suspensions are becoming the go to punishment for all incidents in a school. To put the seriousness of this suspension situation into perspective, we have to understand that “the number of students suspended in just one school year could fill all of the stadium seats for nearly all the Super Bowls ever played (Civil Rights Project, 2015). That was 3.5 million students in the 2011-2012 school year alone.
It’s not just how many students get suspended, it’s also who gets suspended. Throughout the United States, black students have been the target of suspensions far more than students of other races. Nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year.
Black students are suspended and expelled at rates three times higher than white students. According to Civil Rights Data Collection (2015), just 5% of white students are suspended compared to 16% of black students throughout the country. Missouri has an even worse record. Of all of the students who were suspended, just 7% were white while 27% were black. Three of the highest suspending districts for elementary in the United States are in the St. Louis region-- including Saint Louis Public Schools, Normandy and Riverview Gardens. These districts also have high rates of elementary school suspensions. In the St. Louis Public School district, 29% of black elementary school students were suspended at least once in the 2011-12 school year. Cahokia, just across the river in Illinois, has the highest suspension rates overall of any district in the United States.
Why are suspensions harmful?
When students are suspended, their education is temporarily stopped. Being put out of school means having to try and catch up on missed chapters and piles of homework without being in the classroom. This is added to the many other factors that could temporarily interrupt or hurt a student’s education, like attending under-funded schools, living in poverty, transportation issues and a greater risk of being sick and not being able to get proper treatment. Suspension, in the long run, can negatively affect a student's academic achievement, lead to an increase in dropout rates, and increase juvenile crime in vulnerable neighborhoods (UCLA, 2015). They also miss out on in class instruction, friend groups, mentorship, and positive school activities like sports and clubs.
Imagine school being a section in a factory line up. For the factory line to flow along without issues, each section must stay in time with the rest of the line. Suspension is like an error happening in some part of the line, stopping it from running smooth. The worker has to work faster to get caught up in the line and get it running smoothly again. Stopping someone from coming to school to learn is the same way. That factory line is the student’s education, with every part being a different grade level. Anytime that student gets suspended, that is an interruption in the flow of their education, causing them to do excess work to get back to their flow. It doesn’t make sense for a system for education to allow temporarily stopping the flow that is a student’s education.
School to Prison Pipeline
Understanding that suspension is bad and happening to more black students, we have to talk about the school to prison pipeline epidemic. Many studies have shown a connection made to black students being suspended for disruptive behavior and ending up in prison. Not only is law enforcement becoming involved more and more in school discipline, many of these students are returning to the same environment that is often influences or promotes negative behavior. That wouldn’t be the fitting idea for this situation, because the student would have more time to get used to being around the disruptive environment and embody what they know.
Often, suspensions are referred to local police if the issue is said to be serious enough. In Normandy during the 2009 school year, 100% of all students who received more than one out-of-school suspension were expelled without educational services and were referred to law enforcement. In Missouri’s Ritenour School District, 67% of Black students vs. 33% white students were referred to law enforcement. Many of these students could have talked with counselors to figure out the root of their disruptive behavior or had in-school suspensions instead. Also, depending on the home situations, some students might not have the vital role models home with them during the daytime hours.
Alternatives to Suspensions
So what are the alternatives to school suspensions? How can schools address negative behavior in a way that positively impacts their students? One potential solution is a program called Restorative Justice. Restorative justice is a fairly obvious and simple concept-- talk about the problem, figure out what caused it, get to the root of that cause and find a solution for everyone involved. Carrie Nardie, the interim exec. director of community conflict services who coordinates the Restorative Justice Program, remarks that “Restorative justice can help mediate and resolve student/teacher issues, conflict among student groups and different racial groups within diverse high schools, fights, and other negative incidents.”
What fits the society of our future is people coming together on working and solving problems together.
School districts in cities like Denver, CO have implemented the program and have had great results. Matthew Willis, principal of Hinkley High School in Denver, remarks, “If there’s conflict around wrongdoing, we come together and we talk about it, and we try to heal the harm that was caused from the incident.” That school has experienced a 48% reduction in out-of-school suspensions and a huge reduction in fights and other conflicts. Nardie emphasizes that “research suggests that restorative justice mediates conflicts between s/t and student groups, particularly within diverse high schools, models and develops nonviolent conflict management skills, and promotes student accountability for disciplined behavior..” Restorative justice is helpful in this way-- bringing together the victim and the offender to work out a solution that promotes future progress. It restores trust between students and school staff, it helps explain and solve the root of the problem instead of ignoring it and helps builds relationships. It also helps keeps kids in school.
Back in St. Louis however, where suspensions are the highest in the country, many districts do not implement an official restorative justice program. Willis, from Denver, emphasizes restorative justice as an alternative, remarking that, “The ideas of traditional discipline don’t exist anymore. When — in the old days, we — when a student or kid got into trouble, we would spank them. And we moved away from spanking, because it no longer met the values of our society. The same is true with the traditional discipline, where it’s all about punishment, punishment, punishment. It’s not about restoring relationships. It’s not about taking responsibility for your actions. It’s about punishment. And so that no longer fits the society of our future. What fits the society of our future is people coming together on working and solving problems together."
So, we can now fathom this suspension situation and begin to change it. Students have a voice to stop this epidemic.
“The widespread use of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs,” Mr. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, wrote in a letter to school officials. “Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions and adult mentor-ship offered in class and in school.”
So what can we do as students to this? Go into your principal’s office and be prepared to explain why there needs to be other alternatives to discipline students. Let them know that the future of all students is important and the seriousness of simple issues resulting in suspension is not the answer. Talk to your friends and start a restorative justice program at your school. No conflict is worth your education or your future, even though it may be hard to see that at the time. There are others ways to get students to understand school rules and know when they have messed up. The sooner we speak up about the situation, the sooner it can be fixed.