Students at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
Maybe they deserve it?
Maybe the punk who curses at an educator for handing out homework, or spits on an administrator or flips off an overworked security guard has got it coming? Maybe kids just need to be taught a lesson sometimes? Maybe unprovoked rudeness, the kind teachers know all too well, is reason enough to embarrass and ostracize a student transgressor? Maybe we foster strong school communities by kicking out those who even briefly display an insurrectionary tendency? Maybe the hardship of disability, or of abusive parents, or of poverty, does not excuse insolent behavior?
When a student gets suspended for aggravating an overworked, underpaid staff member, we often think, “Well, darn—the brat deserved it!” There are many kids on food stamps, with disabilities and with hostile parents who know how to keep their hands to themselves; if they can behave properly, why can’t everyone? That most students act appropriately means that those who don’t deserve whatever punishment they have coming to them.
And yet, I question whether “deservedness” is a sound basis for severe school discipline. Does a child who mocks a teacher deserve to be forced out of school for a week? Perhaps, depending on the circumstances. But even if we determined that this punishment was morally admissible, would that make it the right thing to do?
Too many educational boards drive their schools into the ground by focusing more on what student belligerents deserve than on what is best for the entire school community in the long term. A wisecracking kid might deserve any number of punishments, but administering them may not enhance either the smooth functioning of his school or his future prospects.
Ultimately, discipline is useful only insofar as it deters the proscribed behavior, a desired end that too often escapes the consideration of suspension-bent disciplinarians today. If suspension actually made students reconsider their aversion to following rules, it would be a defensible proposition, but it actually heightens the estrangement of trouble-makers, leaving them even more fervent in their disdain for schooling. If we hope to prepare young people for socially useful lives, and to keep all students dedicated to school, we will stop emphasizing suspension and start emphasizing more productive alternatives as the necessary response to student misbehavior.
One 2011 study on suspension in Texas, showing that the average suspended student received the punishment four times, undercuts the myth that suspension deters bad behavior and changes kids for the better. In 2011, the Illinois Board of Education found that Chicago Public Schools’ suspended students were “three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than their peers who have never been suspended.” That students repeatedly receive this punishment and drop out afterwards confirms what is to most of us intuitive: barring students from school so that they can aimlessly meander in their often unsupportive homes doesn’t improve their academic or social odds.
It would be more productive to actually engage students when they’ve veered off course, to “catch” them before they’ve made a permanent mission of disruption. Schools like Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, have produced extremely promising results—increased civility, less classroom hostility— by replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school reorientation sessions in which disruptive students discuss with professionals the roots of their insubordination. Such sessions, when run properly, teach kids how to express emotion appropriately, how to grapple with hardship and how to interact diplomatically with teachers and peers. Baltimore’s experience reinforces that point: the city recently eliminated suspensions for several offenses, and has concurrently experienced a 50 percent decline in dropout rates.
According to a National Education Policy Center study, 95 percent of suspensions are given for “disruptive behavior” or other non-drug-, non-weapon-related offenses, like dress code violations and public displays of affection that, even when troublesome, should not condemn their perpetrators to permanent tracks of isolation from school. A rebellious kid could very well “deserve” a suspension, but that doesn’t mean suspensions are the best course of action. Addressing student discontent, from the outset, is far more productive than enraging children with suspensions that only increase their ruthlessness.