Suspensions don’t make bad kids good
Michael Friedman, Star Tribune, February 27, 2012 –
Let’s say young Johnny’s backtalk interferes with his teacher’s authority to promote a positive learning environment. Johnny should not be ignored; there is obviously a need for correcting the behavior.
Let’s say the teacher first tried classroom techniques, followed by removal from the classroom, then by a meeting with the principal and parents, and nothing has helped. Presumably, the next step is suspension.
But why? Will Johnny come back from suspension ready to learn? Very likely not, because suspension involves no investment in trying to solve any issues that might prevent a recurrence.
If St. Paul teacher Aaron Benner (“Teacher frustrated with debate over suspensions,” Feb. 18), or those writing in his support (“A principled stand against classroom disruption,” Feb. 22), told us that his students predictably improved their behavior after returning from suspensions, his views would have validity.
But he doesn’t tell us that, because it doesn’t happen. Research on the subject well demonstrates that suspension doesn’t improve anything.
Just because it’s the default response that unimaginatively has been replicated for many years doesn’t make it the right response.
The longer-term solution that Benner and others offer is too vague to accomplish, inevitably replicating the failure of school suspensions.
He demands improved parent and community involvement without offering any hint of what that might actually look like, or of how to move meaningfully toward that point. In doing so, he inspires a chorus that includes racist overtones in harmony, even if that is antagonistic to his purposes.
The chorus sings that a large subsection of parents, by statistical implication minority, do not sufficiently care about their child’s school success; hence, they continue to tolerate misbehavior. This is a dangerous and untrue view that needs to be combated.
Students who are misbehaving might have parents facing a variety of stressful life circumstances. Parents also might not have access to the education, resources or support to help their child do better in school.
Sending a misbehaving child home for a few days — especially if the parents have work or financial pressures — neither solves the parents’ general stress nor aids them in improving their child’s situation. It is no wonder that parent hostility toward teachers and schools is sometimes the result.
Fortunately, there are evidence-based methods that promote responsible behavior and learning. One such practice is restorative justice, an approach that has been successfully implemented in Minneapolis, among other Minnesota school districts.
In response to the failure of zero tolerance, and the unending school-to-prison pipeline and its racially disparate impact, the Legal Rights Center developed an application of the restorative family group decisionmaking method in partnership with the Minneapolis public schools.
For four years, we have worked with students whose behavior has degenerated well beyond disrespect; we get referrals for students who face expulsion.
Our method includes parents, restoratively trained school social workers and the student. Not only is a plan for redemption created, but everyone present examines the assets and underlying needs of the student so that both family and schools will be better able to support the student’s goal of becoming accountable.
The focus extends beyond behavior correction to what is needed to succeed academically. As the public should intuitively grasp, better success in school is not just the effect of good behavior, but often also the cause.
The University of Minnesota has released an interim study about this project (with a final study due at the end of the year) documenting its impact on student ability to maintain good behavior after the intervention and to catch up academically.
Notably, 92 percent of students and 97 percent of parents surveyed said they were satisfied with the program.
How many parents would survey that they are satisfied with suspension?
Our district partners at Minneapolis public schools are equally enthusiastic. The district social worker who participates in most of the conferences has stated that she has been employed in numerous government positions during her career, including child protection, and that this program more than any other makes her feel as if she is saving kids.
Schools that a few years ago would want the student removed forever now request the program so that the student may remain. Other restorative practices and programs have been brought in to work with younger students and to address less severe behaviors.
Educators, if you wait for the day when parents will magically make their child behave more respectfully in school, and you are satisfied with routine suspensions in the meantime, please know that research and experience would show that you are losing kids.
Support and education is available to you that — as for the parents in our program — will help you shed your frustration and make you more successful.
Michael Friedman, of Minneapolis, is the executive director of the Legal Rights Center.