School Climate & Safety Opinion

Suspensions Should Be Last Resort

By Lorretta Johnson — February 26, 2014 3 min read
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Lorretta Johnson

The new guidelines on school discipline policies provide a much-needed framework to shift policies away from “zero tolerance” in order to stop the disproportionate impact of suspensions on African-American and Latino children, but the new initiatives will only be effective if they are accompanied by actual resources and support.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced their new guidelinesat Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, which is a shining example of a public school that has seen marked student improvement since it changed its discipline practices and implemented other reforms to improve student achievement. As a proud Douglass alumna, I am particularly pleased with what Douglass High School has accomplished and am confident others can achieve success by implementing smart, well-funded revised discipline policies and other reforms that will help reclaim the promise of public education for all students.

Every school must create climates where everyone feels safe and respected and where every child has the opportunity to succeed. Schools should be safe, welcoming, and respectful, with meaningful professional development, wraparound services to meet children’s health and social service needs, and alternatives to suspensions. But policies in a vacuum without real resources and support will not succeed.

Disparate discipline policies have created a sense of urgency. District and state leaders will have to review existing policies and make necessary changes going forward to ensure that suspensions and other disciplinary actions are applied equally to all students. Educators and support personnel will need preservice and in-service training in understanding new policies and managing student behavior.

Transparency, consistency and, perhaps most important, accountability must become commonplace; they must be the practice for all and not the punishment for a few.

While the guidelines are intentionally nonprescriptive, they do recognize local autonomy and provide flexibility for school communities to develop contextual responses.

There is no question that situations will occur necessitating the removal of a student from a classroom or a school for safety reasons; however, it should be for the most serious and dangerous offenses. School attendance and academic achievement remain among the strongest deterrents to juvenile delinquency. Suspensions and/or expulsions should be used only as a measure of last resort. Sadly and historically for disadvantaged youth, school expulsion has been the default.

Lorretta Johnson is the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. She started her career in 1966 as a teacher’s aide in a Baltimore elementary school, where she earned $2.25 an hour and received no benefits. To improve the work situation of paraprofessionals like her, she organized them into the Baltimore Teachers Union. In 1970, she negotiated the union’s first contract, which laid the foundation for Johnson’s union activism. Johnson holds several leadership positions outside the AFT with the AFL-CIO, A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Faith & Politics Institute, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. On March 21 and 22, the American Federation of Teachers will host an inaugural practioner summit on school discipline and restorative practices (www.aft.org), bringing together educators, support personnel, school-based mental-health professionals, superintendents, and administrators to help develop practical strategies involving restorative justice practices and alternatives to suspensions to help change school climates.

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