Reducing outdoor suspensions for minority students

Implementing fair and equitable disciplinary actions in our public schools appears to be the flavor of the month topic in education. However, if school districts are sincere about reversing the history of excessive outdoor suspension numbers and re-engaging students that have violated the student code of conduct, there is much to be done.

It is imperative that school boards and district office administrators in concert with school-site administrators work collaboratively to ensure that inappropriate behavior by students is addressed fairly and swiftly without compromising the trust of other stakeholders (i.e., teachers, staff, parents, and students).

First, appropriate student behavior does not begin with the district’s student code of conduct handbook. It begins with an established trust between the adults and the students at each learning community. Therefore, all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status must be treated with the same level of respect and provided with quality Tier I instruction. In a nutshell, highly qualified educators must challenge every one of their students daily, especially the reluctant learners.

I am a stern proponent of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. This theory allows the educators to target the specific needs of the student while simultaneously allowing students to blossom through using their unique skill-sets.

Moreover, the job of an educator is to dig deep into the bone marrow of the student and find out what makes them tick.

There is no perfect resolution to an imperfect problem; however, that is the challenge of a good educational leader who cares about his/her students. Given the crucial issues of disproportionality and the growing diversity of the nation’s K-12 student population, it is important that educators be prepared to critically examine, reflect on and respond to practices for learners with diverse needs and from diverse backgrounds.

Secondly, during the first week of school, teachers must contact the parent or guardian of every student on their student roll. The purpose is twofold. First, contacting the students’ parents during the first week of school sends a message that the educator cares about the well-being of their child. This call is simply a brief three to five minute call of introduction and then on to the next parent. As education practitioners are aware, if you can develop positive relationships with the parent you are halfway home. Most students will realize that they cannot pit the home against the school when the adults are respectful and communicating with each other. The positive parent-teacher/administrator relationship also informs the student that his/her behavior may be addressed at the primary level before it escalates to a punishable offense. This initial intervention may also reveal the root cause of the student’s conduct and provide the school with an opportunity to identify supplemental support.

Third, when applicable, the student code of conduct must be enforced equally. The aforementioned handbook is not worth the paper that it is printed on if it is perceived or actually not utilized fairly in an effort to rectify the problem.

The code of conduct or students’ rights and responsibilities handbook should not be viewed as punitive, but rather, as a means to educate the offender and re-direct the inappropriate behavior. Moreover, the victim should be made whole by the end of the process. Therefore, this handbook must also serve as a shared document which includes interventions that promote a safe and secure learning and teaching environment. Students have rights and responsibilities similar to the adults in the building and this binding agreement will allow for due process.

One of the most effective approaches to disciplining the offender while providing some relief to the victim(s) is through restorative practices. According to Costello, Wachtel, J., and Wachtel T. (2009) restorative practices, even if they do not appear to change the offender’s behavior at the time, often have a positive impact on the other individuals involved in the incident.

The victim is at least given a voice and a chance to deal with their respective feelings (Costello et al., 2009). Another best practice approach is implementing a Multi-Tiered Support System (MTSS). This research-based framework will allow all of the school-site and community stakeholders to holistically address the needs of the students on an on-going basis and solicit Tier III (internal and outside agency) support as additional human capital for the students most in need. Discipline problems and/or lack of engagement are usually just the symptom of a larger concern.

Lastly, establishing in-school suspension centers is another effective way to ensure that students are not placed on outdoor suspension for minor to mid-level infractions or violations.

The district and the school-site stakeholders must partner with the parents to be courageous enough to decide that students will be better served academically and emotionally in a structured environment at the school, but separate from their respective peers for a predetermined time based on the infraction outlined in the aforementioned handbook. It is also important that the handbook is reviewed with the entire student body during the first week of school through an orientation process. Moreover, the handbook should include a perforated acknowledgement page which must be signed and dated by the parent/guardian and returned to the school within five days of receipt as a signature of agreement.

This is not time out, but rather time-in. Research shows that students are more likely to get into trouble when they are serving outdoor suspension compared to being assigned to an in-school program where they receive their class work, supervision and some form of counseling pertaining to their inappropriate conduct and violation of the student code of conduct. This protocol also requires that the teachers provide the students with their class work while they are assigned to this area with a general content certified teacher.

My first administrator role was served in the capacity of an indoor/in-school suspension instructor. This position allowed me to hold group discussions, engage the students in critical thinking activities, lead peer-mediation sessions; but most importantly, to challenge the students at a granular level to become better citizens and better scholars.

Two decades later, I am proud of the fact that my principal took the initiative to provide a second chance and a safety net, which prevented students from being placed on outdoor suspension for minor to mid-level infractions.

Long time educator Eugene Butler, Jr., is a retired assistant superintendent (Tucson USD).


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