Are Suspensions Necessary? Overused? Signs of Implicit Bias? Pipelines to Prison? Or, Evidence of Inadequate Teacher Preparation, Absence of Early Interventions and Social/Emotional School Supports?

The teacher reprimands a student; the student mumbles something under his breath, the teacher asks, “What did you say?” According to the teacher the student becomes “belligerent” and “threatening” and the teacher demands that the student be suspended.

Not an uncommon scenario.

Is removal from class for a specific length of time the appropriate response of the principal? Are there acceptable alternatives?

The Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, published a study of school discipline practices, actually results of a survey of “more than 1200 teachers.”

The Fordham Institute article begins,

The debate over school discipline reform is one of the most polarized in all of education. Advocates for reform believe that suspensions are racially biased and put students in a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Opponents worry that softer discipline approaches will make classrooms unruly, impeding efforts to help all students learn and narrow achievement gaps.

One of the problems with the concept are the unaddressed core questions: Why are Afro-American boys being suspended at higher rates than other students? Do suspensions lead to better behavior for the suspended students? Or, are suspensions a “pipeline to prison,” Is the anti-social act that led to the suspension the beginning of the pipeline? And, do suspensions, removal of students from a class, actually increase outcomes for the remainder of the class?

To determine how practitioners see this complex issue, we partnered with the RAND Corporation to survey … teachers in grades three through twelve. And because racial and socioeconomic equity is a key consideration in the discipline debate, we over sampled African American teachers and teachers in high-poverty schools to ensure that their views were represented—something not attempted in any prior discipline survey.

Discipline Reform through the Eyes of Teachers, co-authored by Fordham Institute researchers David Griffith and Adam Tyner, yielded five findings:

  1. Teachers in high-poverty schools report higher rates of verbal disrespect, physical fighting, and assault—and most say a disorderly or unsafe environment makes learning difficult.

 Is the term “high poverty schools,” aka, schools with Afro-American student populations, avoiding what the surveyed teachers are saying; namely, Afro-American students more frequently exhibit “higher rates of verbal disrespect, physical fighting, and assault?”  Do these beliefs point to an implicit teacher bias? Does the trauma of poverty express itself in rebellious rejection of authority? Or, unfocused anger? Or, the root causes the absence of parental involvement in schools? Or, fewer teachers of color, especially male teachers of color? Or, are less experienced teachers in high poverty schools the issue?

  1. Most teachers say discipline is inconsistent or inadequate and that the recent decline in suspensions is at least partly explained by a higher tolerance for misbehavior or increased underreporting.

 The report does not address how the decline in suspensions impacted students. Did they misbehave more? Teachers never want students in a class who are “discipline problems,” once again does the skill level of the teacher determine discipline? How does the school as a whole address the issue of classroom management and “discipline,” however you define it?

  1. Although many teachers see value in newer disciplinary approaches—such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and restorative justice—most also say that suspensions can be useful and appropriate in some circumstances.

 How is a suspension “useful?” It removes the student from the class for a few days, or perhaps longer; does it positively impact the suspended student? Or, result in better outcomes for the remaining students? Is there evidence?

  1. Most teachers say the majority of students suffer because of a few chronically disruptive peers—some of whom should not be in a general education setting.

 A common belief, I can’t find any evidence to support. Are disruptive students actually undiagnosed Special Education students? Who defines “chronically disruptive peers”?  Does placement in a Special Education classroom doom students to a lesser education and a pipeline to dropping out of school?

  1. Despite the likely costs for students who misbehave—and their belief that discipline is racially biased—many African American teachers say suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of “exclusionary discipline” should be used more often.

Not surprising; teachers, regardless of race or ethnicity, have common belief systems.

These findings are the basis for four recommendations:

  1. Federal and state policy should “do no harm” when it comes to school discipline.

 I’m not to sure what that means: how do you define “harm?” The Arne Duncan “Dear Colleague” letter threatening federal civil rights interventions for “disparite impact” of suspensions was overkill and resulted in states and schools reducing suspensions without any other programs to address discipline.

  1. Local school districts should give teachers and principals greater discretion when it comes to suspensions.

 Are you saying that zero tolerance and expulsions are acceptable? I hope not. States/school districts must set clearly defined standards for suspensions and consequences for inappropriate behaviors of all kinds?

  1. Advocates for potentially disruptive students should focus on improving the environments to which they are likely to be removed, including “in-school suspension” and “alternative learning centers.”

 This already exists in New York City and should exist in every school setting.

  1. Additional resources should be used to hire more mental health professionals and teaching assistants in high-poverty schools—not to train teachers in unproven “alternatives to suspension” that may do more harm than good.

How about examples of an “alternative to suspension that may do more harm than good.”  Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies are tools; if applied thoughtfully can be useful; however, the best strategy is effective teaching. Teachers in adjoining classrooms may have different skills, no discipline problems in one classroom and some, or, many, in others.

Janelle Scott and others have taken a deep dive into the question of student discipline policies through the lens of Critical Race Theory, well worth a read,  “Law and Order in School and Society: How Discipline and Policing Policies Harm Students of Color, and What We Can Do About It,”  read here.

Teacher preparation programs provide classroom study and a specified number of hours of clinical practice, commonly called student teaching, and, many states require pre-service examinations. Requirements vary widely from state to state.

Shael Polikoff-Suransky, the President of Bank Street College argues that teacher preparation should mirror the preparation of doctors,

Higher expectations and standards have made teaching more demanding than ever. Just as we recognize that aspiring doctors need training before they can diagnose and prescribe, we must acknowledge that teaching candidates require an upfront investment. Aspiring teachers need well-designed and well-supported preparation.

 Yearlong co-teaching residencies, where candidates work alongside an accomplished teacher while studying child development and teaching methods, offer a promising path. Contrary to fast-track certification programs or traditional student-teaching, which is often a brief experience with limited opportunities to practice, strong residencies pay aspiring teachers as assistant teachers so they become fully integrated into their schools.

 The question hanging above; and unaddressed in the survey: Are suspensions effective deterrence?

Deterrence Theory explores whether incarceration acts as deterrence to further crime, what is called recidivism. A fascinating paper (“The Deterrence Hypothesis and Picking Pockets at the Pickpocket’s Hanging”)  concludes,

… this study examines the premise that criminals make informed and rational decisions, presents findings on the influences affecting criminals, and discusses crime prevention strategies that respond to the apparent roots of criminal behavior. The results suggest that 76 percent of active criminals and 89 percent of the most violent criminals either perceive no risk of apprehension or have no thought about the likely punishments for their crimes. Still more criminals are undeterred by harsher punishments because drugs, psychosis, ego, revenge, or fight-or-flight impulses inhibit the desired responses to traditional prevention methods.

Can the results of the paper cited supra be applied to student suspensions?

While we have been discussing the interaction between students and teachers a vital element of the equation is the role of parents. In high poverty schools parent involvement is frequently absent; parents are struggling to survive, schools are not seen as partners, an experienced educator who has spent a career in high poverty schools told me, “I’ve never had a parent question about curriculum.” A principal bemoaned, “No matter how much I preach to parents they tell their children to stand up to threatens or bullying, and fighting back is the appropriate response, not only appropriate but necessary and expected.”

School cultures and community cultures are commonly at odds.

Suspension cannot be a reflex action; on the other hand, there are situations that require removal from classrooms.

Early intervention, identifying student in pre-kindergarten is essential, if you are going to change behaviors you must identify students as early as possible.

Teacher residencies should become the norm, spending a year in a classroom with a mentor teacher is far, far more effective than the current clinical practice, aka, student teaching model.

Collaborative professional development is absent from the vast majority of schools; teachers rarely interact, occasionally listen to an “expert” tell them what to do and how to do it, or participate in turnkey training, a little like the kids’ game of telephone.

School district leadership too often imposes data to drive school policies instead of allowing school communities to drive policies within clear guidelines and supports.

Does the current education and political leadership in New York City and New York State have the vision to address the core issues?

If you’re around on Thursday consider attending the CityandStateNY Education Summit at Baruch College, always an excellent kickoff to the school year – Chancellor Carranza is the keynote speaker.

2 responses to “Are Suspensions Necessary? Overused? Signs of Implicit Bias? Pipelines to Prison? Or, Evidence of Inadequate Teacher Preparation, Absence of Early Interventions and Social/Emotional School Supports?

  1. To begin with, suspending a student has always been a decision made by The Principal. That is why they are called Principal’s Suspensions. Teacher’s were never entitled to “demand a child’s suspension from school.” It is true that Principal’s delegated their suspension authority to Assistant Principals, and Deans. Principal suspension letters with their signatures at the bottom were readily given to those individuals, who in turn would consult or inform the Principal of their intended use.
    As to the question of “cultural bias”, there is merit here. at least there was, back in the day! Long story short, name calling to me was never cause for suspension. Yet in many instances that is exactly what happened. It was always my policy to have Student Handbooks and Parent Handbooks distributed at the beginning of each year. In those handbooks I outlined various forms of unacceptable behaviors, breaking them down into major and minor offenses, with an asterisk around the major ones as qualifiers for suspension.
    Suspensions as disciplinary tools remove the irritant in the short term, but not the cause. A recalcitrant student doesn’t see the light in those 5 days. And so upon that students return, its just a matter of time til his or her next suspension comes due. On the other hand, teachers are insufficiently trained as to what “good teaching practices” are available to them when dealing with or being confronted with recalcitrant students. So what is the answer?
    I have always believed that in every school district, there needed to be a provision for alternative educational setting for recalcitrant and seemingly incorrigible students. Not a “600” school, but an alternative school.
    Where students are educated as to the value of becoming educated.
    Are suspensions a road to prison?Its undeniable that to a certain extent they are. But that should in and of itself, never be an excuse from shying away from the act of suspending someone from school. It is the coarse of last recourse. A school leaders primary mandate has always been about the safety of the school population, which includes the student body, faculty and all support staff. To the extent that their safety is threatened by a student, or for that matter another adult, then removal of that threat is demanded.


  2. District “Codes of Conduct” always include a range of consequences (suspension, detention, referral, etc.) for a range of misbehaviors, acting as rather vague administrative guidelines. What they never include are concrete limits with concrete consequences for the chronically disruptive, incorrigible, or even dangerous students. The solution is a demerit type system that sets limits for misbehavior. When the adults in charge set no limits, we should not be surprised that student misbehaviors become limitless.

    100 demerits will result in a Superintendent’s hearing the consequence of which will be expulsion or placement into an alternate program.


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