In efforts to reduce suspensions, are other students and teachers suffering?

When a reader of a weekly South Carolina newspaper asked a teacher columnist last week how schools can reduce suspensions and keep students in school, the teacher gave a blunt answer that’s now spurring widespread debate.

Teacher Jody Stallings wrote in the Moultrie News

The best way to keep students in school is to increase the number of suspensions. In many schools, kids can bully peers, assault teachers, sexually harass classmates and create major disruptions; yet nothing is ever done about it. Then we worry about test scores and achievement gaps while the biggest obstacle to fixing those things is right there in the classroom every day: disruptive students. There is a solution.

Put them out.

That strong response and Stallings’ comparison of student offenders to criminals set off a national conversation.  Some teachers condemned him for what they deem a callous attitude toward troubled kids, but many more praised his candor. Stallings is a longtime middle school teacher in Charleston County, S.C., and has been Charleston County Teacher of the Year and Walmart Teacher of the Year. He also is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. (Read the full column here.)

The intense debate reflects the mounting frustration among teachers over disruptive students. Many teachers cite discpline as a reason they are considering leaving the field.

Those teachers contend new approaches to student misbehavior being required of schools – including positive behavior interventions and restorative justice – keep wrongdoers in the classroom to the detriment of other students. These concepts -- which require schoolwide training -- are regarded as an antidote to zero tolerance policies in which kids got no second chances and faced harsh punishment. In many schools now, students cannot be suspended for conduct violations, such as breaking dress code, failing to obey classroom rules or using profanity.

But teachers argue the students in the class who do follow the rules suffer in these efforts by states, including Georgia, to reduce, if not eliminate, suspensions and expulsions. 

As Stallings wrote: 

We have alternatives to the regular classroom. Reform schools, on-site alternative programs and computerized home study are options that can give these students genuine opportunities to succeed if they so choose. But what they should not get to choose is to hijack a classroom and hold hostage the learning of their peers.

I know that many disruptive students often have tragic backgrounds. Their stories of abuse and neglect are truly heart rending. But here is the problem: nobody’s story should ever get to overwrite somebody else’s. And even though I feel pity for a child, a teacher’s pity should never permit one child to destroy the education of another.

Some may criticize me for comparing badly behaving students with criminals. But there really is no more apt comparison. Severe or continual disruptive behavior in school is a crime. It is metaphorical armed robbery. The perpetrators are stealing the educations of innocent children. They are robbing schools of good teachers. And they are armed with a high-powered impunity that descends directly from the conspiratorial consent of educational leaders who refuse to do anything meaningful to stop them.

I shared Stallings’ column with readers of my AJC Get Schooled Facebook page, where it immediately won “Amen” and “Preach it” from teachers who think discipline is out of control.

Many maintain Georgia’s policy of penalizing districts for high suspension rates in its annual ratings -- the College and Career Ready Performance Index -- has led schools to ignore serious offenses, rendering classrooms less effective and more dangerous.

Among the response from teachers:

-We are judged on CCRPI for school culture. My school received a 3 star rating because we report the behaviors and discipline accordingly. Other schools across the state claim 4 and 5 stars. These schools have these same behaviors, but clearly don’t report and address the behaviors or their scores would decline. State legislators in Georgia passed a law that students in K-3 cannot be suspended more than 5 days in a year without intervening through RTI (Response to Intervention). Teachers and administrators are intervening daily. I believe the reason crime rates have increased over the years is because poor behavior including hitting, kicking, cursing, refusing to comply and a number of other offenses are tolerated in our schools. When we continue to tolerate poor behavior, we give permission for the behavior to continue.

-After being in education for almost 50 years, I agree, totally. As I have seen, the more we allowed disruptive students to be not properly taken from the classroom, the harder it has become to teach. Thank you for saying this, sir.

-My son’s kindergarten teacher was set on handling one unruly child (she would literally physically keep him in his seat) and meanwhile the kids that behaved missed out on her full attention.

-I have mentored kids/teens for many years now; many at-risk kids in that mix. Them being allowed to rule a classroom is not helping anyone, especially them! Teachers are literally being told to not write up kids, never mind about being suspended or expelled. I also think teachers need more training on classroom management techniques.

But the notion suspension and expulsion ought to be used more frequently raised concerns:

-Rather than try research-based classroom management strategies, you think the answer is to get these children out of the way. If that is your answer, I guess you will never be able to teach kids life skills of how to problem solve, as well as to be curious about the world around them. The students you keep around to teach will become just as limited and depraved in their ability to stay within the lines/boundaries you have created for them as the students you want to throw away into a depraved system of separation and isolation

-Fine, put them out; put them out where? Disruptions shouldn't be tolerated but the law requires children have to go to school until they are 16. They can be put into special ed, special needs, whatever euphemistic tag you want to hang on them, but the bottom line is that no matter where they're put, everybody has to attend X number of school days, regardless of whether they learn anything or not. It is a faulty process causing the problem in addition to the disruptive students.

-These comments and the article are so troubling. Social and emotional learning clearly needs to be at the forefront of education right now.

What are your thoughts? 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.