Why Do We Suspend Students from School? Do Suspensions Result in Improved Outcomes? Are Restorative Justice Practices an Effective Alternative to Suspensions

A month after de Blasio’s election I went to a session at the transition tent, a community outreach, an actual tent, every day a series of “events,” panels of activists commenting/recommending policies for the new administration. The education panel I attended, a minister from a large church, the local NAACP leader, local electeds, community leader types, all railing against the school to prison pipeline. With all the possible education issues confronting the city the top issue for these Harlem activists was the “pipeline.”

Harlem activists are not alone, in fact the “pipeline” is widely accepted as a “truth:” from the ACLU to Tavis Smiley to media source after source.

“The ACLU is committed to challenging the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems“. (School to Prison Pipeline)

The school-to-prison pipeline: an epidemic that is plaguing schools across the nation. Far too often, students are suspended, expelled or even arrested for minor offenses that leave visits to the principal’s office a thing of the past.” (Tavis Smiley Reports)

“Policies and practices that favor incarcerations over education do us all a grave injustice.” (Tolerance.org)

The final draft of the New York State ESSA plan includes a section “discouraging” student suspensions,

“…additional measures of school quality and student success in the accountability and support system over time, beginning with the percentage of students who annually are subject to out-of-school suspensions.”

In New York State all students who are suspended must report to an educational facility. There are two categories of suspensions: in-school, in New York City from one to five days and in another facility if more than five days; either in a special alternative facility, outside the city usually in a BOCES facility.

Suspensions are governed by discipline codes, each school district must have a discipline code that is aligned with state education regulations as well as state and federal laws.

Read NYC Discipline Code (revised, April 2017), Grades K-5 http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/2942494E-7CD8-4CBD-86FC-E34A14FE1852/0/DisciplineCodeK5FINALforPostingaddtledits4517.pdf,

Read NYC Discipline Code (revised, April 2017) http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/92F313F8-C164-4B64-B236-BFF55A812254/0/DisciplineCode612FINALforposting5417.pdf

A lengthy essay in the New York Times reviews suspension policies in New York City and favors restorative justice practices as alternatives,

… in New York, where Rudolph W. Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory had taken hold, signaled to educators that crackdowns on unruliness of all kinds were in order. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of student suspensions in New York nearly doubled, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, reaching about 450,000 suspensions over the course of the decade. In that era, infractions that once might have merited a call home, like shoving another student or cursing, were increasingly common grounds for suspension.

By 2015, in New York City, repeat low-level infractions — cursing, for example — no longer qualified for suspensions. In order to suspend a student for “defying or disobeying the lawful authority” of school staff, the kind of catchall violation that was disproportionately applied to students of color, a principal had to obtain approval from the Education Department. Between July 2015 and that December, the number of suspensions in New York dropped by 32 percent, compared with the same period a year earlier

The Department of Education urged principals to adopt restorative justice practices in lieu of suspensions.

Restorative justice is built on values like community, empathy and responsibility; in its specifics, it asks students and teachers to strengthen connections and heal rifts by sitting on chairs in circles and allowing each participant to speak about how a given incident affected him or her.

The central question: Do suspensions work”? Do restorative justices practices “work?”

By “work” I mean has the suspended student “learned a lesson,” Is future conduct better? Do the “suspendeds” learn self-control? Has the number of recidivist suspensions declined? Does the behavior and academic outcomes of students improve after return from suspension? If a student is suspended and removed from class does the class “benefit?” Does “learning” in the rest of the class improve?

An out-of-school- suspension is the result of a serious violation of the discipline code, for example, fighting, and, we have to be careful not to confuse the act that resulted in the suspension to the suspension itself. While the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations encouraged a “broken windows” strategy, “stop and frisk” by the police and school suspensions, the current de Blasio administration has sharply reduced stop and frisk and suspensions.

Crime rates continue to decline across the city, we don’t know the impact of fewer suspensions?

Max Eden at the Manhattan Institute, in a review of teacher and students surveys claims discipline has eroded,

Advocates of discipline reform claim that a suspension may have negative effects on the student being disciplined. Critics are concerned that lax discipline may lead to more disruptive behavior, disrupting classrooms and harming students who want to learn.

While school climate is impossible to measure in most districts, it can be measured in New York City, America’s largest school district, thanks to surveys that question students and teachers about learning conditions in their school.

This report analyzes student and teacher surveys covering the five-year period of 2011–12 to 2015–16. The key findings: school climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reform, but deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s. Specifically, teachers report less order and discipline, and students report less mutual respect among their peers, as well as more violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity. .

At  March 14th Manhattan Institute forum Lois Herrrra, Executive Director of the Department of Education Office of Safety and Youth Development challenged the findings of the Eden report.

The Department Online Occurrence Report System (OORS) requires detailed reporting of every incident in a school whether or not it results in a suspension. OORS is a rich trove of data, due to privacy concerns the Department limits access to the system – research designs must protect all privacy data. An artfully designed research project would be helpful in driving policy, unfortunately, I believe, the current beliefs that abhor suspensions might not support research with uncertain outcomes.

What has gone unexplored is what happens during a period of suspension. New York City maintains suspensions sites (“Alternative Learning Centers”) and, students receive small group instruction and intensive counseling at the sites. Yes, attendance is well below citywide attendance, for the students that regularly attend: are the outcomes better; do the suspension recidivist rate decrease, do student academic outcomes improve? An article in the New York Teacher describes the sites,

[The Department supports] five centers and 36 sites across the city where high school students are sent for instruction after they have committed an infraction that results in an out-of-school suspension.

These centers together form a carefully conceived safety net to ensure at-risk students get the support they need while not missing a day of instruction.

Mitchell Greggs, the assistant principal at Park Place Academy, a long-term suspension site, says the Department of Education’s alternate learning centers, with their small class sizes, specially trained staff and extra support, give students who have made a mistake at their home school the opportunity to change course.

“It’s the best-kept secret” of the school system, said Greggs. “I tell some students this might be the best worst mistake you ever made.”

… teachers hold daily advisory classes to work on community building, punctuality and attendance and how to handle stressful situations without resorting to fights.

In addition, there are restorative circles held weekly and as needed to talk about issues as they arise and what students will do differently when they return to their home schools.

The intimate school size and class sizes, which can range from one to 13 students, provide the opportunity for staff to get to know the students and address their unique needs.

“We work very individually with students,” said Park Place guidance counselor Camela Singh. “There’s a lot of one-on-one attention to help them plan their academic career behaviorally and make improvements when they go back to their regular school or graduate.

For younger students restorative justice practices as part of a curriculum appear to be an excellent idea, especially if integrated into a school curriculum. At the middle or high school level I favor student advisories, time each week for the teacher to engage in social, emotional learning activities, perhaps restorative justice activities, perhaps single sex “discussions” with same sex teachers; however, to virtually eliminate suspensions is a disservice. Students can learn life-saving, vital lessons during periods of suspension. Violent and dangerous acts have consequences, and a period of removal from a classroom and period of intensive counseling and intensive instruction can make an enormous difference in the life of a student.

We need research: which approaches are working, we should not allow preconceived, political agendas to drive policy

3 responses to “Why Do We Suspend Students from School? Do Suspensions Result in Improved Outcomes? Are Restorative Justice Practices an Effective Alternative to Suspensions

  1. Ken Karcinell

    A little of both is the right answer. Incorrigible youth need to be suspended and ultimately removed. Restorative justice works for students who can be made to understand and rationalize what wrong behavior is, and thus can be shown the way to brerak such habits. But Incorrigible youth require a different professional setting. There are no Teacher Ed courses that train classroom management skills for incorrigible youth.


  2. With the rehashing of Teacher Education courses across the nation, behavior management should be its own class. There are many technological advancements, such as classdojo, that help classroom management and behavior management. Order precedes learning. The sink or swim mentality of teacher preparation in schools needs to stop.

    In addition, I wonder if during these restorative sessions, whether at a suspension site or on school grounds, the idea that they have to take the place of a stable home life is ever discussed. Like this blog has said numerous times, how is a homeless or hungry child supposed to function and focus in a school environment? Or even in middle and high schools, when the child has to pretty much raise themselves…the parent who doesn’t respond or works all the time or is absent due to prison or death.

    Great blog and thought provoking.


  3. Pingback: Suspensions: A Rational Response to Inappropriate Student Behaviors or a Continuation of the Dehumanization of Children of Color: A Research Literature Review. | Ed In The Apple

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