A Different Opinion That Could Save a Life.
After writing several scholarship-driven articles on school violence prevention, this article is aimed for all schools and districts across America.
I'm going ask three questions in this article. I'm also going to issue a challenge to every school and every district nationwide. Last, this OP-ED will focus on what benefits could come from the simple intervention described herein.
Today's topic is that of Suspension and Expulsion in schools in the United States. The Attorney General, Mr. Eric Holder, wisely cautioned states in January 2014 that schools with high out-of-school suspension rates also have lower graduation rates. He also reminded that severe discipline practices in schools often discriminate against minority students "without effectively making schools safer or creating better learning environments" (From Remarks at the Department of Justice and Department of Education School Discipline Guidance Rollout, January 8, 2014, ¶5).
Shortly thereafter, a joint policy was issued by the U. S. Department of Health And Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education that essentially underscored the powerful insights from Holder's earlier remarks and explained how schools, districts, and states, could improve their level of education by aggressively exploring alternatives to suspension and expulsion. This joint policy was also aligned with President Obama's awesome My Brother's Keeper Initiative, which is aimed at restoring opportunities nationwide to Boys and Young Men of Color.
So, by now you might be asking what the aim of this article is and what the present challenge actually centers around. The answer is simple: that American education becomes globally superior in all respects and turns around its ineffective practices that discriminate against minority learners.
Before going any further, I'm going to be a consummate teacher for a second and just deliver the three questions and the challenge so that you as the reader can have some time to think about them. After that, I will come back to briefly discuss each question and what they entail. Last, we'll revisit the potential impact nationwide that could come from A Revolution in Education.
QUESTION 1: Do we want to admit that Suspensions and Expulsions are actually a predictor of future incarceration in America and therefore stand against this practice altogether?
QUESTION 2: If we do admit that Suspensions and Expulsion are harmful, is there a proven way to work with students that we would want to Suspend or Expel?
QUESTION 3: Is there anyone out there who is happy that they got suspended and expelled because it helped them make educators proud and turn around struggling schools?
CHALLENGE: Can schools and districts across America Stand United against the Practices of Suspension and Expulsion to Create a Different type of American Educational System Altogether?
So now, you've had a chance to reflect on where this discussion today is going. I strongly encourage the use of the Comments Section at the end of the article to keep this discussion going. Truly, a future article could be written about each of the above questions, as well as the challenge that comes from the questions.
= = Question 1 Discussed = =
1) Do we want to admit that Suspensions and Expulsions are actually a predictor of future incarceration in America and therefore stand against this practice altogether?
I think that a question about the admission of error is a healthy one. The 12-Steps process popularized by substance abuse recovery organizations reminds that 'admitting you have a problem' is the first step toward recovery. But why is it a problem to suspend and expel kids, you might ask?
Here is an illustration of this point. Have you ever attended a hospital that had two things true about it:: First, it was known internationally as being a leader in effective care and the successful treatment of many illnesses. And second, it had the practice of suspending or even expelling patients? Seriously, have you ever heard of a hospital that suspends or expels patients?
It's a rhetorical question - the answer is no - because we would all agree that patients could never become well if suspension and expulsion were used. A crafty argument could be made that the discharge from a hospital is a form of suspension, and perhaps the illustration breaks down after that. But really, a hospital never removes people from its current practices of care because the hospital knows that it cannot reach its mission of sustained public health if people do not finish their course of treatment.
Do you see any parallels here? I'll help connect the dots. (a) We use suspension and expulsions inequitably in the United States so that many more minority students, by percentage, receive these practices than other groups. (b) The traditional expectation is that suspension and expulsion will scare kids into acting right. (c) Our national leaders through Mr. Eric Holder, Mr. Arne Duncan, and President Obama have wisely tried to help put us on a path to decreasing these practices.
And these parallels do not even start to talk about what is commonly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. This metaphor provides urgency to help change our gender-inequities in school discipline (i.e. boys are punished much more than girls) because these leads to more inequities later on (i.e. males incarcerated much more than females). And again, the school to prison pipeline also is aligned with Mr. Eric Holder's insights about racial inequities in school discipline that need to be changed.
But I would only add that there is a better step than decreasing a problem and that is for schools and districts to find ways of ending it altogether.
= = Question 2 Discussed = =
2) If we do admit that Suspensions and Expulsion are harmful, is there a proven way to work with students that we would want to Suspend or Expel?
I have an admission to make. I was never suspended out-of-school. However, my caring educators did have the opportunity of giving me an in-school suspension in the eighth grade. Back then, I was brazen. I stole a book of passes from my English teacher's desk while he probably was at the restroom or even in the teacher's lounge having a cigarette (back in the 80s when this was possible :-). Nevertheless, a classroom of peers saw my deception and sure enough I was called to main office where a punishment was meted out.
The school sent a letter home to my mom, which I intercepted and shredded before she ever saw it. But even though I was ashamed of my offense, I still came and endured what would be my only-ever in-school suspension.
On that day, I sat in a small room while some stone-faced educators came in shifts to monitor my sitting behaviors and make sure I was working. They occasionally told me starkly to sit up straight. There was also a room for more serious or more regular offenders, but I do not think I had reached that level.
And you know what? It worked, because I never stole anything from school again. And I even became an educator. A success story.
But fast forward to now, and I am really not comfortable with how out-of-school suspension and expulsion works in America. It simply shapes kids into a mold that leads to school dropout, no GED, no opportunity for a world-class future with one's current peers, and added to that a much higher likelihood of incarceration.
Here is a real-life characterization of an out-of-school suspension for a student in a higher-poverty school. Imagine it was Tuesday and Reggie was given an out-of-school suspension. It was the only day he had that week without a full lunch because at home the cupboards were bare. It was cold outside, but it was even colder inside because the heat bills were also a month behind. So Reggie went out looking for food. He tried to lift a candy bar from a local store, and it was his fifth time doing it. This time, the storeowner made an example of him. Now, Reggie - who was on his single day of out-of-school suspension - has a misdemeanor rap. He's skipping school left and right now because he's got to either prevent his friends from finding out or try to look cool like he's in control of things. By the year's end, Reggie has three Ds and two Fs. He's already planning on skipping school altogether in the autumn of the next year.
Have you heard that kind of example before? What if it were true? What if our prisons in America were really overloaded with kids that were being denied opportunities in schools? And they tried to find a way to simply exist outside of the loving arms of our national educational system, but only other system was that of juvenile justice.
If you want a proven way of working with kids who make mistakes, it is to use Restorative Practices. The idea is that students have to work through an issue of misbehavior at school and with someone. The International Institute for Restorative Practices, www.iirp.edu, explains that "restorative practices can develop better relationships among these organizations' constituents and help the overall organization function more effectively."
In a nutshell - which in this case, we need the whole nut and the whole tree - restorative practices are behaviors a school or district can engage in that will help address a problem that has occurred, restore the relationships that were broken, and find ways to make meaning from the event. Schools can even guide students to lead in these practices.
Restorative practices start by having the student answer the following questions (imagine them on a card).
• What happened?
• What were you thinking about at the time?
• What have your thoughts been since?
• Who has been affected by what you did?
• In what way have they been affected?
• What do you think you need to do to make things right?
Restorative practices then has questions for the student and peers/leaders to work through a proper response that essentially avoids creating punishments. After all, that is the goal is restoration.
• What did you think when you realized what had happened?
• What have your thoughts been since?
• How has this affected you and others?
• What has been the hardest thing for you?
• What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
Restorative Practices can change the whole dialogue in a school so that the correction of students actually becomes something they can be proud of. That is a lot different than the idea of consequences that might remove these students from the potentially globally superior educational system we are trying to maintain.
Just a last word about restoration. Okay, let's say you are restoring a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. How many car enthusiasts does it take to restore a car if we suspend and expel car enthusiasts? Or how many cars does it take if we suspend or expel our restoration process?
The answer is that we need to engage in restoration everywhere, every time, because it is what will make the difference in every educational endeavor. This also means that we have stop suspending and expelling kids when it means removing them from schools. If it means keeping them in schools, then we have a chance to help change behaviors. But otherwise we lose that chance.
= = Question 3 Discussed = =
3) Is there anyone out there who is happy that they got suspended and expelled because it helped them make educators proud and turn around struggling schools?
If we go to G.E.D. centers, we might be able to ask this question. I was an administrator of one of these internationally and you couldn't find a single person that was happy about getting counted out of their education. There is deep shame experienced by anyone who doesn't finish school, and it is often combined with a strong desire to help improve their life.
If we go to our schools, and ask students, who can vouch for what they will say? We need to ask them! But I would guess that kids want to do what my friend, Dr. Ted Ransaw, called the "Cool Pose" - this means that folks would try to play down their punishments and try to find a way to emphasize pleasure and a plan.
But here is the grim reality. The only plan that occurs from suspension and expulsion is that these practices lead to the end of the American educational system and the beginning of the Juvenile Justice system. We've got to stop this inequitable practice that takes kids away from their (and our) schools.
It is our responsibility in our generation to start restoring the practice of helping kids in school and never letting them out of our care.
Yes, I said at the beginning that I was given an in-school suspension for theft. Did it help? The answer is that I later got a job at a local McDonald's restaurant and was fired twice - two different times for stealing food. And then I stole plenty when I got to college. I raided all the convenience stores and there was no end to dishonesty. But a light went on.
Billy Graham visited Syracuse University in May of that year - my first year of college. And it was from a seat in the Carrier Dome that I decided once and for all that I would never let dishonesty rule my life. And it really was that - a choice about integrity. Really, integrity is a choice that people of every faith and background share, including those who exercise their trusted right to forego faith. The common goal here is simply this: the common good of our society.
But I have to think back and remember the long list of advocates in my life - teachers, youth group leaders, friends that weren't in more trouble than me, my parents, my brothers, my sister. I was fortunate beyond belief that I did not end up in the system. You might disagree, but I invite you to know the best part of this story: restoration.
That next school year I went back to every single store that I ever stole from. I even went back to the McDonalds. I apologized to every last store owner, store manager, and employee who was at work the day that Jonathan Doll came to exercise his own restorative practices. And do you know what happened?
Well, at McDonalds, it actually took steps. I worked at another McDonalds in penance until I felt like I had been a good enough person again. I still love a good burger every now and then! But when I spoke with the firing manager GeeAnn and thanked her a couple years later, she actually could barely remember me. After all, she had dealt with so many wayward teens by then. But it was restorative for me to go back and talk with her.
All of the other stores, with no exception, were welcoming and it was amazing to me when I returned to them to apologize. I expected punishment, and was ready for it. I offered to pay my dues and assessed dollar amounts for all that had taken from each store, but I doubt that more than a single store wanted my money. I remember tears in one manager's eyes because he was just happy I came back.
But again, I was never suspended out-of-school nor was I expelled. After all, if that had happened, I probably never would have made it to college on time or even at all perhaps.
It's all about restoration, friends. It's all about restoration.
= = Challenge Given = =
Can schools and districts across America Stand United against the Practices of Suspension and Expulsion to Create a Different type of American Educational System Altogether?
It's really hard to close this article with a challenge given the ever-present needs that so many schools and district have. However, I so strongly believe every school and district in America needs to consider this idea. What if we were a nation that built itself around keeping kids in schools? What if it was impossible to get out of our educational system because we did not let anyone go?
It's a perfect world, I have to admit. And I know that at some time in my life I became an optimist. After all, you can never create a negative impression for an optimist. Just try it.
So I am an American united against Suspension and Expulsion in our schools. And I want every student to graduate and be ready for a career or college.
Who are you? Are you ready for the challenge of standing against suspension and expulsion? Is your school ready?
As an evergreen-optimist, I will close with three takeaway points:
➤ Imagine a school or a district that commits itself to a not give out-of-school suspensions or expulsions ever for a whole school year, and later for future years.
➤ Imagine a country filled with these schools.
➤ Imagine a globally superior national educational system that just got better.
It really could ignite a Revolution in Education in America!