Pros Say Suspensions Don't Work

by Anonymous (not verified) on May 13, 2013

may 13 2013
Garfield Principal Jose Huerta with students.

This opinion piece was written in support of the proposed "School Climate Bill of Rights," the first campaign of Liberty Hill Foundation's Brothers, Sons, Selves initiative..

School Discipline and the Future of LAUSD

An Op-Ed By Jose Huerta, Principal, James A. Garfield High School and James Ream, President, Los Angeles School Police Officers Association.

Today, the Los Angeles Board of Education will vote on whether or not to adopt the School Climate Bill of Rights, a policy aimed at redefining how schools discipline students. As Board Members discuss the initiative we would like to offer some advice:

Educators and policymakers need to understand two things when it comes to school discipline: 1) suspensions don’t work; and, 2) supporting students and holding them accountable for their actions are not mutually exclusive.

Last year California suspended more students than it sent to college. Of the over 700,000 suspensions that were handed out, nearly half (48%), were for what schools call “willful defiance”. Students who talk back, chew gum in class, and in extreme cases, don’t do their homework, can be placed on suspension. If it sounds ludicrous, it gets worse. School Police are regularly called to campuses to deal with incidents of willful defiance, like students not sitting in their seat. 

When students are suspended they miss an entire days worth of valuable instruction time. Increasing student attendance and improving graduation and college-going rates, take a back seat to punitive practices that do nothing to address the root causes of misbehavior. What’s more, students lose a sense of self-worth and develop animosity toward education.

School Police work diligently to focus on very real issues. When they are
called to minor incidents that can and should be handled administratively, it
significantly reduces our efforts and ability to handle or prevent more serious problems. The School Climate Bill of Rights takes “willful defiance” off the table, and works to clarify the role of police on school campuses.

Schools will no longer be able to rely on suspensions or school police to deal with minor infractions. There are students that are suspended for more egregious offenses and that is where the School Climate Bill of Rights is most beneficial. In addition to eliminating “willful defiance,” the policy calls on schools to enact Restorative Justice practices that help teachers, school administrators, and school police to work with students and parents to create a more positive learning environment.

Case in point: Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Readers may remember Garfield as the gritty backdrop for 1988’s Stand and Deliver, in which Edward James Olmos portrayed Jaime Escalante, a calculus teacher who refused to give up on his students when the rest of the world had written them off. He saw in his students the potential for greatness and provided them with the motivation and instruction they needed to succeed.

During the 2008-2009 school year, Garfield had 683 suspensions. Garfield decided to take a lesson from Mr. Escalante, and focus on combining effective instruction with positive reinforcement. Without any major funding and in the face of the arguably the most dire budget cuts this district has ever faced, they began implementing a form of restorative Justice called School Wide Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports (SWPBIS) to address discipline.

Unlike Jaime Escalante’s story, this was not the effort of a lone individual. Every
adult on that campus -- teachers, administrators, counselors, classified staff, school police officers and community-based organizations -- decided to challenge decades old thinking that removing students from school was the best solution to disciplinary problems. Instead, they focused on building understanding and respect among students. Garfield actively promoted dialogue over detention and chose support over suspensions. Students involved in altercations were brought together to discuss and resolve their issues. Adults made themselves more accessible and changed their relationship with students. While students may have an uneasy relationship with law enforcement outside of school, students have embraced their school police officer as a counselor and a friend.

The result: a more positive school climate, greater safety, and improvements in academic achievement and attendance. The school gained 75 points on Academic Performance Index, outperforming dozens of high schools across state of California. In fact, suspensions dropped from 683 to 1; Garfield’s graduation rate went up nearly 20% propelling them past the district average; and the percentage of students passing the high school exit exam jumped from 69% to 83%.

The primary function of any school system should be to produce well-rounded
individuals that are prepared for college, careers, and civic life. The School Climate Bill of Rights is not about letting students off the hook for their actions. It is about adults doing everything possible to help students learn from their mistakes and understand their worth.

As the School Board comes to a decision on the School Climate Bill of Rights we ask you to consider the words of Mr. Escalante: “If we expect kids to be losers they will be losers; if we expect them to be winners they will be winners. They rise, or fall, to the level of the expectations of those around them.”