The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Having Better Schools Without Suspensions or Expulsions

on March 26, 2017

Today’s topic is one I feel strongly about and have dealt with before: the effects of School suspension and its alternatives. An article in NPR Ed titled “School Suspensions Have Plunged: We Don’t Know Yet if That’s Good News” authored by Anya Kametz triggered my response.

 Over the past five years 27 states have passed laws intended to reduce the numbers of school suspensions and expulsions by making minor offenses and first-time offenders ineligible. Also, many of America’s largest school districts have changed their polices with the same goal and standards.

What many schools have done along with raising the bar for suspensions is to institute a practice known as “restorative justice” (RJ). What that entails is bringing an offender before a circle of other students and a teacher mediator to discuss the offence and suggest ways for him or her to repair the damage done.

In New York City former Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned suspensions for first-time and minor offenders and instituted RJ in 2012. Later, his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio made it even more difficult for students to be suspended and expanded the RJ program. He even added $1.2 million dollars to the city budget to train teachers in using that program.

Although the number of suspensions dropped dramatically in the following school years, New York’s annual school climate surveys showed that students perceived less mutual respect among their classmates and experienced more unpleasant physical encounters. On the other hand, the teachers felt that order and discipline had stayed the same or even improved.

To confuse matters more, a recently released paper by Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute argues that such actions have been harmful to schools and students, making the school climate worse than before and endangering the safety of students and teachers.

Eden’s teacher surveys done in other cities reported no improvement in school safety or student respect after they adopted policies similar to those in New York.

Like those responders who disagree with Eden, I feel that he has not provided nearly enough evidence to support his opinions. At the same time I think that Implementing RJ programs is only one small step in changing the climate of a school or eliminating bad student behavior. I believe that much more could and should be done.

Basically, I see the heart of the problem as the fact that many schools, especially high schools, are too large and, as a result, too impersonal. As I have asserted in earlier posts, teachers with a hundred or more students do not know most of them personally and students do not know their classmates as work partners and friends. In addition, in large schools there are not enough structures outside the classrooms for students to meet and work or play together.

One change I have suggested for large schools is to divide themselves into two or three separate schools without grouping students by ability. Along with creating the possibility of personal attachments within schools, that would allow the creation of mixed school intramural sports, drama and musical groups; not only giving many more students the opportunity to participate in school activities than is now possible, but also to letting them mix with people from the other schools within their building.

Another change I have stressed before is to give more power to students in such areas as making rules for student behavior, becoming partners for other students who have academic or social problems, and working with teachers to plan activities and select materials.

Clearly, I have not covered all the possibilities for schools within a school and students across a building. But I believe strongly that creating and sustaining the types of structures I have mentioned is the key to making all students academically and socially successful. The only thing I would add is to provide the same kinds of opportunities for teachers to lead and learn from each other and to become recognized as the experts in their field.

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