When it comes to the criminal justice system, it is typically seen as counterproductive if a sentence for a crime involves letting the convicted continue what he or she got in trouble for in the first place.
Therefore, I found it quite ironic that out-of-school suspension is often used as a punishment for continued unexcused absence from class. To an outside observer, suspending somebody for continuously missing class would be comparable to sentencing someone convicted of animal cruelty to work at a puppy mill. In both of these situations, the person is being allowed to continue the very act they got in trouble for as a form of punishment trying to encourage them not to do the act again. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how these suspension disparities expand much further than just this little piece of absurdity.
From Kindergarten through 12th grade, I went to private Catholic schools in Montgomery County, MD. Based on my experiences in private schools, suspension was always seen as a last resort – something that was only used as a punishment for acts committed with malicious or selfish intent like cyber-bullying, destruction of property, intentionally causing physical harm to another student, cheating, or stealing. A more typical punishment for something like frequent unexcused absences was detention, which requires a student to stay at school longer, which would appear to be a more sensible punishment by making the student do the opposite of what he or she got in trouble for. Also, based on what my friends from my upper-middle class neighborhood who attended the well-integrated public schools of Montgomery County have told me, suspension policies at their school were almost identical to those of the county’s private schools that I attended. The Montgomery County Public Schools’ website appears to confirm my friends’ observations, with suspension being used as a sanction for serious rule violations, including threats, weapon possession, arson, and intercourse, among others.
Previous studies confirm many of my suspicions. African American students are more likely to be suspended for violations of school code of conduct than their white counterparts when disciplinary discretion is left to teachers and school administrators. These violations where black students are given an out-of-school suspension where white students often get a less severe punishment, if they get punished at all, include unexcused absence, dress code violations, loitering, and “disruptive behavior” in class (e.g., Fabelo et. al 2011). However, one study found that in cases where the law, instead of the schools, requires suspension or expulsion, white students are more likely to be suspended or expelled than black counterparts (e.g., Fabelo et. al 2011). These cases involve more serious violations, an example being bringing a gun or drugs to school (e.g., Fabelo et. al 2011). This indicates that the brunt of the responsibility for the suspension gap can reasonably be placed on teachers and administrators.
This inequality in the severity of disciplinary action for rather minor rule violations impacts a student beyond the period of time he or she is suspended. Actually, when a student is given an out-of-school suspension, missing learning time is among the least of our worries. Students who are suspended are more likely to have later contact with the juvenile justice system than similar students who did not experience temporary removal from school, showing that overly harsh discipline has built a school-to-prison pipeline (e.g., Smith and Harper 2015). If the problem of disparate suspensions continues, incarceration rates are likely to continue to skyrocket. This can be traced to how suspended students, especially those in urban neighborhoods, spend their time while serving their suspension. When vulnerable children are away from school for any extended period of time, they need something to do in the meantime. Those living in high-risk neighborhoods and public housing projects are likely to fill this time engaging in drugs, crime, and gangs. Schools are seen as a means to take at-risk youth out of these environments and offer them a path to the middle class. High suspension rates are antithetical to this goal. Also, since schools are frequently the primary food source for impoverished youth, those that are suspended from school often go without food for an extended period of time. With hunger as a motivator, suspended students could turn to illegal means in order to feed themselves, blemishing their criminal record and entering them into the juvenile justice system.
Even if there is just one single suspension on a student's record, it could greatly affect his or her prospects for higher education, as a study of college admissions departments found that over 89 percent of colleges take a student’s disciplinary record into account when considering an application (e.g., Weissman and NaPier 2012). This is particularly troubling because many schools maintain disciplinary records in a way that would not inform schools of the reason why a student was suspended (e.g. Weissman and NaPier 2012). For example, if a female student is suspended for a dress code violation due to shorts one inch shorter than the required length, her disciplinary record will only show that she was suspended, and the admissions department will have to speculate as to why she was. This could logically lead them to simply assume the worst and reject her application in favor of those that are squeaky clean, even though her violation was rather minor. This example is more than simply hypothetical, as a Department of Education Study found that African American females are more likely to be suspended for dress code violations than white female students (e.g., Lhamon 2014).
There are a number of barriers to learning that vulnerable populations experience, including unequal severity of disciplinary action. Because of time constraints, many of these barriers were simply mentioned and not explored in depth. However, exploring the barrier of disciplinary action due to piqued curiosity of a common and ironic sanction for truancy led me to discover that this problem is more widespread than I had ever imagined. With the racial inequality of the U.S. justice system being a common headline grabber, especially recently, we often forget that the justice system within public schools is unfair as well.
Ten years ago, Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) wrote about an “education debt” that has accumulated over time throughout this country’s history. One of the components of this “education debt” that she mentions is a sociopolitical debt, or a gap in political power between minority families and white families (e.g., Ladson-Billings 2006). This gap in disciplinary severity between blacks and whites affirms her theory of the existence of a sociopolitical debt impacting education disparities. White middle-class parents have more expansive networks compared to poor minority families and have relatively easy access to lawyers, politicians, and other influential contacts (e.g, Lareau 2002). Because of this, middle-class families are more likely to fight the school if their child is suspended for a mere dress code violation, while their lower-income counterparts do not have as many options at their disposal to fight their child’s suspension.
Fear of lawsuits and backlash from wealthier parents should not be the only thing stopping teachers and administrators from suspending students, whether they are black, white, rich, or poor. Based on my experience in private K-12, I believe that public schools can learn from private schools on appropriate, just, and equitable discipline. I mentioned earlier that disrupting class is one of the relatively minor offenses that black children are more likely to get suspended for when compared to white children. As somebody who has struggled with ADHD, I was one of those children who had a tendency to be rather disruptive and a nuisance to teachers during my elementary school days. However, instead of being suspended, getting detention, or even being sent to the principal’s office, I would be told to see the affable guidance counselor during lunchtime.
My elementary school guidance counselor is an example of the first dimension of youth empowerment – a welcoming and safe environment. Telling a student not to come to school for x number of days because they have misbehaved is certainly not welcoming. Quite the contrary, it makes a student feel unwelcome and unwanted. On the other hand, a guidance counselor like I had in elementary school is an empowering alternative to overly harsh punishment, welcoming a student to share his or her problems and determining possible pathways of behavioral improvement that will benefit the student on both an individual and community level. If a student is continuously missing class, send a guidance counselor to his or her house to find out why, instead of imposing the illogical sanction of out-of-school suspension. Showing students that there are adults who care about them demonstrates that they are welcome and wanted in the school – ordering them to stay home does not. If they feel welcome, they will logically be less likely to delve into truancy or chronic absence.
From the perspective of teachers and administrators, liberal use of suspension may be a more efficient form of discipline, especially if they are in a school district without the money to hire counselors to address any problems that may arise, which could make my suggestion in the previous paragraph hard to do in many of the schools where a high suspension rate is a major problem. Teachers may see suspension as a form of needed temporary relief from children who slow down class as well as a needed sanction for absence, as students who come to class well behind on the material will also hold the rest of the class behind.
With an education achievement gap between black and white students that reaches the equivalent of three years by grade 8, these are legitimate concerns. However, suspending a student will only lead to them dropping further and further behind. Smith and Harper (2015) suggest that in order to address this, education degree programs should add curriculum for prospective teachers on coping with tense situations without resorting to harsh discipline in addition to readings and studies on classroom racial disparities and the implicit racial bias that clearly exists in school discipline. This is a suitable first step, as I mentioned earlier that inequality arises when the sanctions are employed by a teacher or administrator, and not required by law. I would add that youth empowerment should also be a dimension in Smith and Harper’s suggested curriculum, with two dimensions being particularly important – a welcoming and safe environment as well as equitable power sharing between youth and adults. Since a natural cause of chronic absence and disruptive behavior is distrust and inability to cooperate with authority figures, an environment promoting equitable power sharing to a certain extent would ease tendencies of students to act out. On top of this, they will feel trusted and also feel like there is a purpose in coming to school - which is a type of empowerment needed in inner cities.
Possible interventions that will occur outside the school could focus on a number of general problems that negatively influence in-school behavior of vulnerable youth. The goals for this interventions will focus primarily on the reason why a student was suspended in the first place. These could include improving the inadequate public transportation and school bus service in poor urban neighborhoods, which could lead to a student getting suspended for chronic absence or tardiness, two common “soft offenses” that likely result in suspension. Another example is weak internet connection, if there is any at all, in poor households which could affect a student’s ability to complete homework assignments, failure of which is also a “soft offense” that could get a student suspended. Inability to afford clothes that comply with a school’s dress code could also be another factor increasing a student’s likelihood of suspension. These examples point to the primary intervention goal for this side of the suspension problem, which is to provide at-risk and lower-income students with the resources necessary to reduce the likelihood of committing the “soft offenses” that land many suspended.
All goals addressing this program need to be two-pronged, addressing both the teachers’ and administrators’ contributions to the problem, as well as the reasons that the students are getting suspended in the first place. If this problem remains unaddressed, minorities and the urban poor will face stiffer disadvantages that whiter and wealthier counterparts when it comes to economic mobility and educational attainment.