School Climate & Safety

Suspended in School: Punished But Still Learning

November 06, 2012 8 min read
Gilbert Orellana, a psychiatric social worker, answers questions from Angelica Lopez during a lunch detention group at Garfield High School in Los Angeles. Lunchtime interventions are among the strategies the school is using to reduce out-of-school suspensions.

Some of the students at Success Academy here are doing International Baccalaureate-level work. Most of the classes have just five or six students. And every nine weeks, groups of students are required to make major presentations to their classmates and hand in thick binders full of even more- detailed reports.

But this Baltimore public high school isn’t for elite students. Admission depends on whether students have done something so serious a regular district school won’t have them anymore: assaulting classmates or staff members, possessing or distributing drugs, or wielding weapons.

The school, serving as many as 100 students at a time, costs more than $1.2 million a year to run, but the district, which houses the program at its headquarters, says keeping students learning and in school—somewhere—while they are serving out a suspension or have been kicked out of their own schools is far less expensive than the alternative.

“The idea of children being out of school makes no sense,” said Karen Webber-Ndour, Baltimore’s executive director of the office of student support and safety. But at the same time, the district acknowledges that students may have to leave their home school for some offenses.

School-based discipline options like this one are being tried in schools nationwide as a substitute for punishments that force students out of school, which have been shown to disproportionately affect black, Latino, and male students and those with disabilities.

While in-school suspension may be an old standby, schools seem to be putting their own stamp on it. Whether those spaces are staffed by certified teachers or aides varies, and some schools don’t have classroom space to spare for something that might be heavily used one day and not at all the next. Other disciplinary configurations include Saturday classes, evening programs, and lunchtime interventions. In some cases, behavioral-health specialists are available on demand to work with students, keeping them in school rather than suspending them.

“We don’t have control over the kids when they’re at home,” said Ramiro Rubalcaba, a former assistant principal at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, who helped the school trim out-of-school suspensions to one in each of the past two school years.

“We don’t want them to lose out on instruction. ... The time we can take away from them is the social time,” Mr. Rubalcaba said.

In the 84,000-student Baltimore district, Superintendent Andrés A. Alonso proposed creating Success Academy, along with revamping the code of conduct and a host of other changes in school discipline, after he took over the district in 2007. At first, those working on developing Success Academy assumed students would mostly need remedial courses.

Stepping Up Rigor

That quickly changed, Assistant Principal Mariam Spalding said, when staff members began to see a good portion of students working at or above grade level and coming from some of the district’s most-challenging academic and specialty programs. Now, some of the students—who attend voluntarily—have told Success Academy administrators the school requires more work than their previous schools did.

See Also

This story is the last in a four-part series on alternatives to suspension and expulsion. For more, visit the Rethinking Discipline page.

The school separates students by gender and age, Principal Eugene Chong Qui said, and may end up serving more than 100 students throughout the school year as those on shorter expulsion terms or awaiting hearings return to a regular campus.

But since the school’s creation, fewer students have attended overall, he said, in part because of the districtwide shift away from harsh discipline practices.

Also, students are transferred to a regular district school only at the end of a quarter to ensure a smoother transition. The school designed its own 46-day curriculum modules to match those quarters. All students must take a behavior-management course in addition to their academic subjects. Some students are set up with internships in district offices.

And before students leave the program, they must present a project in self-reflection to their peers and give school administrators a more detailed version of the report in which they have pinpointed the catalyst for their negative behavior, Ms. Spalding said.

“We want them to evaluate why they have such short fuses. What was their trigger,” she said, and “what about this environment helped or hindered their progress or kept them the same?”

Students have discussed the loss of one or both parents, physical or emotional abuse, early sexual relationships, and even sibling rivalry as triggers for their behavior. The cause isn’t always deeply rooted.

“Sometimes, it’s just one poor choice,” Ms. Spaulding said. “That’s all it’s ever going to be.”

Baltimore’s investment in students who would otherwise be expelled is big, requiring a separate staff and facilities, a special schedule, and partnerships with outside organizations, including the YMCA.

Garfield High’s Approach

At Garfield High in Los Angeles, less costly changes and a determination to keep students in school are the new normal.

The old normal at the school on the city’s predominantly Hispanic east side was hundreds of out-of-school suspensions every year. For the past two school years, there has been one per year—both for zero-tolerance offenses over which the school has little discretion.

Mr. Rubalcaba was a student at Garfield years ago, later a teacher, and then a dean and an assistant principal.

“I got to see what Garfield was: It wasn’t very positive,” he said. Aside from the band and football teams, “we were known as the school of Jaime Escalante"—the Garfield teacher made famous in the film “Stand and Deliver” for pushing students to take college-level mathematics in the 1980s.

The school, like all others in the Los Angeles Unified system—the nation’s second-largest school district, with 640,000 students—was nudged to address its out-of-school-suspension problem starting about five years ago. At first, administrators resisted, Mr. Rubalcaba said.

Eventually, though, the message sank in. The school equipped parents with name tags and matching polo shirts and stationed them at front doors to greet students each morning and provide extra hallway supervision. Images of the bloodthirsty bulldog mascot in corridors were replaced with messages of inspiration and encouragement. It helped that new high schools opened nearby, cutting Garfield’s nearly 5,000-student enrollment in half.

In addition, the school simply took suspension off the menu of discipline choices. Students instead get the option of working out their own problems while losing privileges—just what happened in the case of a pair of drill-team members fighting over a boy last school year. They were barred from performing at a football game and from all practices and had to at least try to work out a solution on their own.

“Within half an hour, the girls had resolved it,” Mr. Rubalcaba said. One pledged not to talk to the other’s boyfriend, and both promised to respect the other.

“What would have been better: sending [the girls] home for a school-sanctioned vacation or having them really learn and reflect and research?” Mr. Rubalcaba said.

Garfield’s academic performance has soared at the same time that more students have been punished on campus than off.

The school also added one especially key alternative to educators’ discipline options: a lunchtime detention.

One student tried to bring his girlfriend to the lunchtime consequence he faced for defying a teacher. The girl offered to serve alongside her beau.

“I said, ‘Uh-uh, it doesn’t work like that,’ ” Mr. Rubalcaba recalled. “He said, ‘This is killing me. Just suspend me. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

Even when schools find success in reducing suspensions and discipline referrals with alternative programs, however, they can’t always sustain them. In Clayton County, Ga., for example, budget woes led the 50,000-student district to replace certified teachers with teacher’s aides in district alternative programs, said Tamera Foley the district’s executive director of teaching and learning.

Finding the Money

In Savage, Minn., Eagle Ridge Junior High was one of five schools the state department of education gave small grants to four years ago to try to curb out-of-school suspensions. With the modest award—$20,000 a year for three years—the school added Saturday school and evening classes for students who might have been suspended in the past. The evening classes on social skills were one hour long, and parents had to attend.

Saturday school added to that, requiring an hour of community service and two hours of schoolwork, said Cherie Braspenick, the school’s associate principal.

The 800-student school cut its 1,500 office referrals a year in half; out-of-school suspensions dropped from nearly 300 beforehand to less than half that number.

Administrators worried about how parents would react, but they embraced the new options, Ms. Braspenick said. “Parents really want their kids in school,” she said. When they are not, “it impacts whether they can go to work, or they are worried about what their kids are doing at home.”

Eagle Ridge students had a choice between suspension and an alternative, depending on the severity of their rule-breaking, and most avoided suspension.

When the grant expired, however, the alternatives went away, although Eagle Ridge has strengthened its in-school-suspension program and is working on implementing the approach known as positive behavioral supports and interventions. (“At S.C. School, Behavior is One of the Basics,” Oct. 24, 2012.)

Meanwhile, the Association of California School Administrators helped defeat state legislation proposed this year that would have required schools to place students accused of disruption or defiance in an in-school-suspension program, rather than suspend out of school.

It was primarily a matter of money, said Laura Preston, a legislative advocate for the Sacramento-based organization. California law requires a certified teacher in an in-school-suspension program, she said, which costs more than using aides. But the state has slashed education spending—and the rest of its budget—sharply in recent years.

“We’ve cut over $20 billion over the last five years. It’s definitely better to try some approach than kick kids out of school if you can,” Ms. Preston said, but “we can’t even do the basics.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Suspended—But Still Learning—in School

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