Sus­pen­sions solve noth­ing

Our view: City schools CEO San­telises is right that teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors can’t fix dis­ci­pline prob­lems by send­ing kids home

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

We have a great deal of sym­pa­thy for teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors who must cope with dis­rup­tive stu­dents in class. The job of pro­vid­ing a high-qual­ity education to all the chil­dren in their care is hard enough, and be­hav­ioral prob­lems among a few stu­dents can make it nearly im­pos­si­ble. But sus­pend­ing trou­bled stu­dents is rarely the an­swer. Keep­ing a child out of school does lit­tle, if any­thing, to ad­dress the real prob­lem, and it may make mat­ters worse by al­low­ing the trou­ble­some stu­dent to fall fur­ther be­hind in his or her work.

That’s why the re­port by The Sun’s Erica Green doc­u­ment­ing a spike in sus­pen­sions in the Baltimore City school sys­tem last year is so dis­turb­ing. Baltimore had been one of the national lead­ers in seek­ing al­ter­na­tive forms of dis­ci­pline and driv­ing down sus­pen­sions, but last year’s in­crease of nearly 25 per­cent sug­gested that the district’s fo­cus on the is­sue had slipped. To be sure, the sit­u­a­tion is much bet­ter than it was a decade ago, when sus­pen­sions were four times the cur­rent level, but it is nonethe­less clear that newschools CEOSonja San­telises needs to put dis­ci­pline re­form at the top of her agenda.

Mary­land’s state school board reg­u­la­tions two years ago de­signed to move dis­tricts away from zero-tol­er­ance dis­ci­plinary poli­cies, out of a recog­ni­tion that in prac­tice they tended to dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm mi­nori­ties and dis­abled stu­dents and that they did lit­tle to ac­tu­ally im­prove the school cli­mate. Baltimore was ahead of the curve thanks to the ef­forts of ad­vo­cates and the ad­min­is­tra­tion of former city schools CEO An­drés Alonso. The re­duc­tion in sus­pen­sions here was part of a larger ef­fort to keep kids in school rather than giv­ing up on the dif­fi­cult cases, and it con­trib­uted to steadily in­creas­ing grad­u­a­tion rates — a trend that, per­haps not coin­ci­den­tally, stalled out last year.

What’s clear is that an ef­fec­tive strat­egy for re­duc­ing sus­pen­sions is about more than hav­ing good poli­cies in the sys­tem’s code of con­duct. It’s about train­ing so that all prin­ci­ples and teach­ers un­der­stand not only the let­ter of the poli­cies but also the spirit be­hind them. It’s about con­stant vig­i­lance from the cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tion — some­thing that ap­peared to be lack­ing dur­ing the ten­ure of former CEO Gre­gory Thorn­ton. And it’s about the su­per­in­ten­dent setting the right tone — as the sys­tem’s new CEO, Ms. San­telises, is now try­ing to do.

Among other things, Ms. San­telises has en­cour­aged schools to adopt what are known as “restora­tive prac­tices” to im­prove be­hav­ior. That in­cludes as­sorted ef­forts to im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tion among stu­dents and staff to re­duce con­flicts and build re­la­tion­ships. It’s not a new idea; some city schools al­ready do it well, no­tably City Springs El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle School, which has re­ceived national recog­ni­tion for its ef­forts. The ap­proach can in­volve a num­ber of el­e­ments, in­clud­ing class­room cir­cles to dis­cuss is­sues, con­flicts and feel­ings; peer courts; and me­di­ated Baltimore schools CEO Sonja San­telises says she is con­cerned about a rise in sus­pen­sions. resti­tu­tion for slights that might other­wise lead to fights. It re­quires a se­ri­ous in­vest­ment of time, at­ten­tion and ef­fort — and, at least in the train­ing phase, money. But it works.

Sus­pen­sions, by con­trast, do not. They may tem­po­rar­ily re­move a dis­trac­tion from the class­room but at much greater long-term cost. A ro­bust body of aca­demic lit­er­a­ture has doc­u­mented the links be­tween school sus­pen­sions and dropout rates or even crime. A ma­jor study of Texas stu­dents pub­lished in 2011 showed not only that sus­pen­sions were meted out at much higher rates for mi­nor­ity stu­dents but that those who were sus­pended tended to face such dis­ci­pline mul­ti­ple times in their school ca­reers — a clear sign that the pun­ish­ment wasn’t chang­ing be­hav­ior. Why would it? Send­ing a stu­dent home elim­i­nates any pos­si­bil­ity for teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors to ac­tu­ally ad­dress the root prob­lem.

Ms. San­telises has only been on the job a few months, but she has al­ready shown an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just how much the suc­cess or fail­ure of the city school sys­tem de­pends on more than the aca­demic in­struc­tion teach­ers de­liver in the class­room. City stu­dents have dis­pro­por­tion­ately been af­fected by trauma, poverty and neigh­bor­hood vi­o­lence, and no ef­fort to re­form the sys­tem can suc­ceed with­out ad­dress­ing their so­cial and emo­tional needs. Ms. San­telises’ sup­port for restora­tive prac­tices dove­tails neatly with her view that rais­ing aca­demic stan­dards in the class­room will re­quire more col­lab­o­ra­tive and in­ter­ac­tive learn­ing. Both cen­ter around in­ter­act­ing with stu­dents as they are, not as we might wish them to be. It’s a promis­ing ap­proach, but it’s not com­pat­i­ble with a cli­mate in which sus­pen­sions are on the rise. She needs to re­store the progress made un­der Mr. Alonso and see how much fur­ther it can go.


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