Thursday, February 19, 2015

On Suspension--Are We Helping, or Binding Our Own Hands?

I’m as horrified as anyone when I see an eight-year-old kid marched out of a school in handcuffs. Things like that ought never to happen, and I question the competence of anyone who allows such a thing. I feel the same way about anyone who judges student infractions by who the kids are rather than what they did. Of course we should have as few suspensions as possible, and whatever regulations there are should apply to every school that takes public money, including charters. But I wonder whether we’re doing good by applying blanket measures rather than targeting offenders.

I read pieces that suggest correlations between suspension rates and dropout rates. They don’t surprise me. But can we really label suspension as a causative factor for failure in people who behave badly? Isn’t it far more likely the bad behavior itself causes not only the suspension, but failure in school?

The last time I had a hand in getting a student suspended was about 15 years ago. Students were walking out of my classroom and as I sat down, a kid I’d previously had no problem with pulled a chair out from under me. To this day I have no idea why he did it. But suspension was an appropriate rejoinder, and I don’t regret it at all.

Another time, and also over ten years ago, I was teaching when a student walked into my class shouting obscenities. As far as I could tell, none of my students knew this kid. I asked what he was doing in my room and did not get the sort of answer I was looking for. When I became insistent the student leave, he proposed blowing my head off with a 45, and did so in front of over 30 witnesses. I was told that, because the kid had an IEP, that a phone call home would be the only consequence. I argued that someone who walks around threatening to kill people ought not to be in the same building as my students, but I was overruled. I’m not sure what that kid learned.

In our building, such incidents are the exception rather than the norm. But I’m not at all certain that giving us fewer options to deal with bad behavior is going to help anyone. You really never know what’s going to happen in a room with 34 teenagers in it. Sometimes magical things happen. You want those things to happen, but you can’t force them. Other times, terrible things happen, and you can’t stop them.

Whatever happens, I try to let kids know what to expect from me. Kids test me all the time. What will happen if I come late? What will happen if I don’t do the homework? What will happen if I cut class? What if I do it on a test day? What will happen if I go into the trailer bathroom, turn on my cell phone, and start playing music?

There is constant communication between us. They test, and I respond. After a while, there are fewer tests. I don’t like disciplining students. I’m grateful when tests subside. Of course I don’t want to suspend kids. I don’t even like to throw kids out of my classes. I almost never do. Once I had a girl who was threatening to punch a boy’s face out. I fully believed she would do it, too. I sent her to the department office, and when she came back the next day she was a little less punchy.

The best way to avoid suspension is to avoid situations that lead to it. But you can’t always do that. And in an emergency, I don’t want to ask permission to call 911. I don’t want Tweed to have a veto over my principal if he thinks suspension is warranted. And frankly, if principals haven’t got the wherewithal to make reasonable decisions about which situation merits which discipline, they ought not to be principals.
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