Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 23, 2013

Another View: Suspensions put kids on track to failure

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Imagine a school in which suspending a student for unacceptable behavior was, by policy, almost unimaginable. Conventional wisdom might call that inviting chaos, but in a growing number of districts nationwide it’s called restorative justice. And it works.

Now, Michigan is taking a hard look at disciplinary practices in an effort to disrupt the so-called “school to prison pipeline.” Seventy three-county teams ... met at a summit in Ann Arbor in late September to kick off a three-year implementation of new truancy policies aimed at keeping kids in school.

It’s the first state of which we’re aware to hold such a summit ... We applaud the focus, and we look forward to more dialogue at the state and local levels.

We’ve written previously about the need to rethink how communities and schools respond to problem behavior among youth. Too often, that response is banishing students to an empty room or out of school altogether.

The absurdity of the practice is obvious. Struggling students have little enough motivation to attend school. Rewarding bad behavior with a free pass to skip school almost invites repeat offenses.

Worse, numerous studies have found that suspension often contributes to a gradual process of academic and social disengagement that increases the probability of additional disciplinary exclusions, academic failure, drop-out and, often, criminal activity.

Midland Probate Judge Dorene S. Allen, who chaired the summit, told participants that “of Michigan prisoners, 49 percent do not have a high school degree or GED.”

The good news is that models for success exist. Last year, for example, we wrote about Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Wash., where administrators saw an 85 percent decline in suspensions after changing its approach to discipline.

Just recently, we learned about a small school in Le Grand, Calif. that reduced suspensions from 49 in 2010-2011 to 15 the following year.

How? By focusing on getting offenders to talk about their feelings, to address what they were thinking when the incident occurred, and to work together on what could make things “as right as possible.”

That’s not to say that students face no consequences for unacceptable behavior, but that proper training of faculty and staff and more coordination with behavioral experts stand a better chance of putting troubled kids on the right path.

The zero-tolerance culture ... is utterly ineffective.

What’s more, it’s disproportionately affects minority students and students from difficult economic and family backgrounds — kids that need more help, not less.

Battle Creek Enquirer