Suspensions: A Rational Response to Inappropriate Student Behaviors or a Continuation of the Dehumanization of Children of Color: A Research Literature Review.

Thanks for all the comments, online and offline, about my last blog (Why Do We Suspend Students from School? Do Suspensions Result in Improved Outcomes? Read here), it clearly sparked interest.

The term “suspension,” envisions a removal from school, perhaps to a alternative site, or, simply stay home for a specified length of time. The vast majority of suspensions are in-school suspensions; in New York State all suspensions are removal from class to an alternative site, either in the school or another education facility.

Each school district must have a readily accessible discipline code, a set of regulations that describe in detail behavior expectations and consequences.

Teachers commonly have a “time out” area for a student whose behavior is “disruptive of the education process,” if the disruptive behavior continues the Code describes progressive discipline steps,

The first step is  removal from  classroom by a teacher,

“A student who engages in behavior that is substantially disruptive of the education process, or, substantially interferes with a teacher’s authority over the classroom may be removed from the classroom consistent with the disciplinary options set forth in the Code. All removed students must be permitted to attend classes that are taught by teachers other than the teacher requesting the removal (e. g., music, art or science)”

The next step up the ladder is a Principal Suspension.

“In addition to the above a principal has the authority to suspend a student for 1 to 5 days for behavior that presents a clear and present danger of physical injury to the student or other students or school personnel, or, prevents the orderly operation of classes or other school activities consistent with the disciplinary options set forth in the Code. Reasonable  effort must be made to address inappropriate student behavior through supports and interventions prior to imposing a Principal’s suspension.”

“Suspended students must be provided with instruction, including homework and class work at tan alternative educational site within the school”

The next step, the most controversial step are Superintendent Suspensions,

“A superintendent’s suspension may result in a period of suspension that exceeds five school days and may be sought for behavior for which a superintendent’s suspension is authorized by the Discipline Code.

A student who receives a superintendent’s suspension must be provided with the opportunity for a hearing at which the student has the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses on his/her behalf and to question the school’s witnesses [note: the student may be represented by counsel]”

The Code specifically urges school to couple supports with disciplinary actions..

“When a student engages in inappropriate behavior the school is expected to couple supports and interventions with disciplinary actions with the express purpose of holding student’s accountable and simultaneously helping students learn from their mistakes. The disciplinary responses which follow provide a range of options to be used to best meet each student’s individual needs. While student misbehavior must be handled on a case-by-case basis schools are expected first to implement primary (non-removal) disciplinary consequences to address student misconduct whenever possible and appropriate before imposing a more stringent disciplinary response.”

The Code lists page after page, in minute detail, inappropriate student behaviors: Level 4, “Aggressive or Injurious/harmful behavior,” and Level 5, “Seriously Dangerous  or Violent Behavior.”  The Code lists “Student Supports and Accountability Responses to be Used in Tandem,” and two columns: “Supports and Interventions” and “Range of Possible Disciplinary Actions.”

Increasingly schools are using restorative justice practices to address discipline issues

Read the entire 41-page Revised (April. 2017) Discipline Code here

In New York City the number of suspensions has dropped sharply.

The Discipline Code and the suspension procedures on the surface appear to be rational responses to inappropriate student behaviors.

Are we deluding ourselves?

Critics of suspension paint a different picture, an abusive system that is an extension of slavery. Khalil Gibran Mohammad, the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America (2011) recounts how the abolition of slavery, the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were nullified in the South as a system of peonage and incarceration replaced slavery.

 Legislators turned to the newly constitutionally protected power of the state to criminalize nearly every aspect of black freedom, from employment and land ownership to voting and everyday forms of self-defense and self-pride.

What abolition took away, the modern criminal-justice system restored: a racialized system built in the South to economically exploit, socially contain, and politically control the black population in the name of law and order.

The Supreme Court, in decision after decision confirmed the passage of Jim Crow laws; Lawrence Goldstone, “Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court – 1865 – 1903” (2011), writes,

by the dawn of the twentieth century the United States had become the nation of Jim Crow law, quasi slavery, and precisely the same two-tiered of justice that existed in the slave era.”

Thanks to Professor Fergus, at NYU, for pointing me in the direction of a wealth of school suspension research.  The Equity Project at Indiana University explores core issues in a paper, “Are Kids Worse? Myths and Facts About Racial Differences in Behavior: A Summary of the Literature” (2014).

There has been a substantial amount of research exploring connections between race, poverty, student behavior and suspension/expulsion. The purpose of this paper is to summarize this research. Does poverty explain the Black-White discipline gap? To what extent are racial differences in suspension and expulsion due to different rates of misbehavior or disruption among students of different races?

After an in depth exploration of reams of research studies the authors conclude,

the data are consistent: there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.

I urge you to click and review the findings here.

If you want delve more deeply into the research check out the links below:

Can “De-Biasing” Strategies Help to Reduce Racial Disparities in School Discipline?

Discipline Disparities: Myths and Facts

New and Developing Research on Disparities in Discipline: The Discipline-Disparity Research to Practice Collaborative.

How Educators can Eradicate Disparities in School Discipline: A Briefing Paper on School-Based Interventions

Gregory and Fergus in the journal, “The Future of Children,” Fall, 2017 examine the question if how social and emotional learning, for both students and teachers, impact student discipline and muse over the impact of “power, privilege and cultural differences”

 Anne Gregory and Edward Fergus review federal and state mandates to cut down on
punishments that remove students from school, and they show how some districts are
embracing Social Emotional Learnong in their efforts to do so. Yet even in these districts, large disparities in discipline persist. The authors suggest two reasons current discipline reforms that embrace SEL practices may hold limited promise for reducing discipline disparities.

The first is that prevailing “colorblind” notions of SEL don’t consider power, privilege, and
cultural difference—thus ignoring how individual beliefs and structural biases can lead
educators to react harshly to behaviors that fall outside a white cultural frame of reference. The second is that most SEL models are centered on students, but not on the adults who interact with them. Yet research shows that educators’ own social and emotional competencies strongly influence students’ motivation to learn and the school climate in general.

The first day of class and the prospective trickled into my graduate education class; I asked them an inane ice breaker question: sometime like “In one brief sentence, what’s your education philosophy?” Muhammad was the only black student in the class, he was a scientist who was an adult convert to Islam; he answered first: “All whites are racists, the question is how they deal with their racism.”

A moment of silence, I changed the assignment, I asked the next student, “Agree with Mohammad?”

“Absolutely, I struggle with my racism every day, I’m a middle class white from the suburbs, how can I relate to my inner city students.”

The next student almost jumped out of her skin, “You’re the racist, how can you point fingers at us if you’ve never met us, you’re disgraceful … I treat everyone equally whether white, black or green, to treat individuals differently is racist.”

The discussions for the remainder of the term were spirited and rich – were minds changed?  Should minds have been changed?  I don’t know – I know we explored an emotionally charged issues – we thought deeply.

In New City City there many campuses, building with three, four or more high schools. Schools in the same building with kids from the same neighborhoods with the same academic abilities, one school has high levels of suspensions the school on an adjacent floor has few suspensions. The only differences are the school leaders and staffs.

Student suspension and discipline procedures and policies is a complex, emotional topic.


One response to “Suspensions: A Rational Response to Inappropriate Student Behaviors or a Continuation of the Dehumanization of Children of Color: A Research Literature Review.

  1. “Each school district must have a readily accessible discipline code, a set of regulations that describe in detail behavior expectations and consequences.”

    The district where I taught for thirty years (1975 – 2005) required teachers to list 10 items in a discipline code and keep it simple. No more than 10, and the directions were to keep them simple and easy to understand. Each teacher wrote their own code and we were required to post them. I wrote my 10 codes (rules of classroom conduct) on four large poster boards and posted one on each wall so they’d be close to the students.

    The first day of school, the teachers were required to go over that code and send a letter home for parents and the student to sign and return to show they understood what the classroom rules were and the consequences.

    We had to follow a three step system. First a warning and point out the rule being violated. Give the student a chance to stop what they were doing. Issue one more warning if they didn’t and then write them up on the third warning.

    We were also required to document everything in detail on forms with several copies that were distributed to the student’s counselor, a VP. and a copy to the Principal. A copy went to BIC too. The paperwork by itself was daunting and caused some teachers to never enforce any of the rules they posted and never suspend or fail a student no matter what the student did except for a brutal fist fight with hair pulling. These few teachers, who didn’t do much teaching, were very popular with the unruly students who fought to get into their classes.

    The high school where I taught had an in-house period-by-period suspension classroom with a certified teacher. The rest of the staff was required to supply worksheets that were kept in file folders that the students were required to work on in that BIC (Behavior Improvement Center) classroom.

    There were about 100 teachers at the high school and on average, they wrote 20,000 referrals to BIC annually, and 5 percent of the students earned 95-percent of those class suspensions.

    Every incident that was documented required a phone call to the student’s home to talk to a parent or guardian. For years, there were no phones in most of the classrooms so that meant teachers had to make a trip to the main office to use one of the phones there and document every call even the ones where no one answered the phone.

    Repeat offenders sped up the warning process. I had one student who was often sent by all of his teachers every day. He never did the classwork and homework. One day I thought I was going to get a pass from him. He was the classroom clown who loved to hijack the class to get attention and laughs. I had met with his parents several times, and nothing ever changed. His mother lied and claimed I was the only teacher he was having problems with. She said I didn’t like him. Actually, he was very comical and got me to laugh too but I had to teach. That was my job. It was easy to prove his mother lied repeatedly because of his K-12 file where a copy of every referral ever written was stored. Every teacher he had every year had problems getting him to let them teach.

    That one day when I taught he was going to let me teach, just as the lesson was going really great with discussions, etc., he said, “I wonder what it would be like to have sex with an elephant.” That was the end of that lesson. He was one of the few white students I taught. Only 8-percent of the student population in that high school was white. Did I write a referral and send him off to BIC? Yes. I called his parents too. His mother called me a liar that he would never say anything like that, but I had more than 30 witnesses who at first were struck mute by his comment before pandemonium broke out.


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