During the 2015-16 school year, Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 individual students, representing an increase in the overall suspension rate for the second year in a row. The short-term suspension rate increased in 2015-16 after years of significant steady decline.
Virginia schools continue to use exclusionary discipline with very young students, issuing over 17,300 short-term suspensions and at least 93 long-term suspensions just to children in pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) through third grade alone.
Most of the suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given for behavior offenses, such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language.
Black students in Virginia were suspended about four times as much as Hispanic and white students in 2015-16.
This data is from Suspended Progress, a report released initially in May 2016, and updated this fall by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“Suspension hurts everyone. Suspended students are at a significantly greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system. Worse yet, suspension damages school climate, public safety, and the economy”– Angela Ciolfi, JustChildren’s legal director and co-author of the report.
Below are embedded charts from the Virginia Department of Education School Quality Profiles (note: reports are interactive, you may need to click on the year tab to view charts):
Beyond the numbers, how does a school system institute clear behavioral standards and expectations? Disciplinary tools, such as suspension are part of the toolset teachers and administrators use to create a balanced environment. The worry, however, is that by excluding young children from school can create collateral consequences for families that compound issues or create new problems, especially for parents who lack child care or work leave time. Children form their school attendance habits in elementary school. When we use out-of-school suspensions as punishment, we teach young children that attending school isn’t an important, fundamental value they should prioritize.
Other research shows that nearly half of all children in the United States have experienced a traumatic event tied to poverty or family dysfunction, and repeated exposure to high stress can literally rewire the brain. This calls into question the so-called “zero-tolerance” school discipline systems that many states have adopted in the past decade in response to pressure to improve graduation rates and test scores. A school system based on merely punishment and compliance, eventually just pushes the “right” kids out, and may even create the illusion of success by increasing test scores. When suspension and expulsion do occur, most school divisions offer no meaningful opportunity to maintain educational progress or prevent educational regression while a student is excluded from school. Missing months, weeks, or even just days of school can leave many students in the stressful situation of feeling isolated and perpetually struggling to catch up. Some students are forced to repeat grades. Students who endure out-of-school suspension and expulsion may drop out of school entirely.
Are there alternatives?
According to the authors of the Suspended Progress report, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in pre-K through third grade should be eliminated, except in cases where there are instances of serious weapon-, drug-, or serious violence-related events. Especially in these early grades, school divisions can and should be employing alternatives to exclusion that build skills, including parent conferences, referrals to supports or special education, restorative practices, and evidence-backed in-school interventions that ensure students stay engaged with their education and return to their classroom as quickly as possible.
Restorative practices (Trevor Fonious, et. al., Restorative Justice in US Schools: A Research Review), are non-punitive methods that provide meaningful, appropriate accountability for a student’s specific behavior issue. Restorative responses focus on repairing the harm done, developing a workable plan for restoring relationships or damage, and including victims and others affected by the conduct in the process. In many cases, actual restitution can occur—a restorative plan can include property repair, tailored school service projects, and relationship skill-building. Chesterfield, Richmond City, Harrisonburg, Fairfax, Spotsylvania, Loudoun, and Roanoke are school systems have implemented restorative practices and:
•Behavioral incidents decrease;
•Academic achievement increases;
•Students report more positive school climate in general;
•Peer-to-peer accountability increases; and
•Students and teachers learn invaluable conflict resolutions skills.
Can the newly elected school board help?
The Suspended Progress report notes that “local school boards should adopt student codes of conduct that are consistent with adolescent development, promote fundamental fairness, and ensure that students receive consistent, quality education even when under a disciplinary consequence”, including:
•Be consistent with positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS);
•Describe and emphasize students’ rights as well as responsibilities;
•Describe expectations of staff in managing behavior;
•Tier consequences by grade level and offense severity;
•Describe prohibited conduct with adequate specificity;
•Require that administrators consider mitigating factors before meting out discipline;
•Require the use of available interventions and alternatives that are appropriate and tailored to specificoffenses in lieu of exclusionary discipline;
•Describe available interventions and alternatives;
•Use clear, simple language, and define uncommon words and jargon; and
•Be comprehensible to students and parents with lower reading levels.
Correlations and Challenges
While data is somewhat spotty, some studies have looked at the relationship between teacher retention and overly punitive school disciplinary policy. Do school systems like Northampton, that have a relatively high turnover rate, and a higher proportion of new teachers, use suspension and expulsion to fill in for professional and experience gaps? The elected school board has been loathe to take on policy challenges such as truancy and teacher retention. Suspension and expulsion policy also appears to be another area that requires more attention.