There was the day that a sixth grader was upset, was blocked by an administrator from exiting a room and pushed his way past. Within the hour, he was sitting in the principal’s office, handcuffed, talking to a police officer. He would leave that day in the back of a cop car—the start of a long suspension.
I would follow him out, silent and ashamed of my silence. I would later reach out to district staff and school board members, but nothing happened to change the outcome or to meaningfully address the causes.
There was another day that an even younger student, second grade, I think, was showing off drugs at recess, saying it was meth and a pipe. Police were called in again, there were tense meetings in the office, consultations with whoever gets consulted. The student was suspended for ten days.
There was an eighth grade student who would come to school for an hour, sometimes two. Sometimes he would make it into a classroom, but mostly not. He would be marked as present. This student struggled behaviorally, and the school came to an (as far as I know unspoken) agreement that as long as he showed up for a little bit every day, he wouldn’t be reported for truancy. And as long as he “took a break” for a day or two when they said so, they didn’t have to mark it as a suspension. As far as records from that year would show, everything was fine.
Those are the stories, the faces I think about when I think about how poorly suspensions are working for our kids. There are numbers that local activists have shared that I can’t shake either: 92% of kids suspended or expelled in St. Paul Public Schools last year were kids of color. That number is appalling. The numbers everywhere aren’t good.
It is numbers like this that have led to the California bill that would ban suspensions for willful defiance. And it is reactions to that bill, like a Parkland victim’s father saying the ban will “invite another Parkland” that have me thinking about how and why both suspensions and our answers to them are falling short.
Yeah, there should be fewer suspensions, but there should be fewer because we need them less. What happens in too many schools, too many times, is that the main office focuses on reducing numbers of suspensions because the district office focuses on reporting that there are fewer this year than last. But nothing, or not nearly enough, is done to address the root causes of those suspensions.
Too often, we have removed an ineffective intervention and replaced it with nothing at all.
How to Make Suspensions Rare
When I see how over-represented kids of color are in suspensions just about everywhere, I think about what kinds of implicit bias teachers are carrying about those students. I think about unnecessary power struggles and cultural misunderstandings around what constitutes engagement and disrespect. I’ve seen students sent to the office for responding verbally during a movie in class, only to be suspended minutes later when they refused to sit down in the principal’s office.
I think about hyper-enforcement of rules, and how that enforcement seems too often to be directed at marginalized populations. I think about 6-year-old girls, arrested for having a “tantrum” at school, and think of how many adults that day saw that same little girl as bigger, older, more dangerous, more violent than she is.
This part of this work is on us, fellow teachers. I know I’m not perfect. I know, especially when I’m tired or frustrated, I can be part of the problem. I know I try to be mindful of who I am noticing in my room and why I am noticing them. I try to remember that the loud kids are often more on task than the quiet ones, that kids don’t always have the language to tell us what they are feeling, so those messages can come at us sideways or backwards. I try to remember to breathe and listen before I demand and punish. We can do better. It will take hard work on ourselves and our cultures and systems, but we can do better.
Another part of the work on lowering suspensions, a part that is only starting to happen around the country, is focusing on helping the students who need it before something happens that is suspension-worthy or providing supports after. We have some ideals and leaders to look towards, and many are based on trauma-informed practices and schools. There are places getting there, but not nearly enough, not nearly quick enough.
My immediate region houses two giant school districts (Minneapolis and St. Paul), as well as a good number of rather large (and some rather tax-rich) suburban districts. Everyone tends to work in their own little silos in their own corners of these districts, but imagine if we all worked together on this?
Let’s Create Real Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspension
Imagine if there was a central place, or central programming, designed to work as support for growth in lieu of home suspensions. Programming centered on substance abuse and addiction (we could have a whole team of vaping specialists), on gang interventions, on anger management, on interrupting cycles of trauma. There could be mental health care for kids who really needed it, social workers to help kids and families who are struggling, mediation services, tutoring.
We wouldn’t need to force it. Families could be given the option of a home suspension or a van that will come get the student for whatever time made sense to get help, to help themselves, in an environment created for that purpose.
It would cost money. There isn’t enough. I don’t have an answer for that beyond knowing that we need our schools to do more, and they need the money to do it. I don’t have an answer beyond knowing that young people need our help and we shouldn’t hesitate to fund them. I know every single district could use a resource like it, and doubt any one of them could pay for it alone.
I know suspensions are not the answer. I know that forcing those numbers down doesn’t do enough for enough kids. I know we need to admit failure. We should be furious and deeply embarrassed every time we handcuff a kid, every time we punish them for being homeless or addicted or angry or unwell. I know the faces of those kids, the ones who needed more from the adults around them, who deserve more from their schools than what they got.