We Don’t Have to Suspend So Many Kids—But Alternatives Cost $$$$

Alternatives to *no excuses* discipline exist, but they don’t come cheap….

Corey 2 By Corey Gaber
The typical *woke* person’s evaluation of the behavior management landscape is that we suspend and expel too many kids. We suspend more than 3 million students a year, twice the level of suspensions in the 1970s. And we suspend kids for less and less severe actions, most famously in no-excuses charter chains, for doing things like singing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror in the Cafeteria. As has been well documented, we teachers and administrators issue consequences in a racially-biased manner. 

But removing a student from school rarely benefits the student. In fact it often hurts their long term academic prospects. They miss valuable class time and teacher support, which puts them in a tough position to catch up whenever they do return. They often harbor feelings of resentment, embarrassment, and/or confusion about the suspension, combined with their academic falling behind can lead to further acting out. Finally, suspension is unlikely to address the root problem that led to the behavior in the first place.

That said, here’s the thing that progressive educators don’t like to talk about: there is a point where removing a student from the learning environment does benefit everyone else. The learning of an entire class can be derailed by a single student, and allowing that student to remain robs others of an education, and sends a message about just how porous or firm your boundaries are as the leader of your classroom. Which raises a big question. When a student needs to be removed from the learning environment, if not suspension, then what?

Which raises a big question. When a student needs to be removed from the learning environment, if not suspension, then what?

Restorative Justice Practices
One alternative is an idea so radical that you should grab a seat before reading any further. Are you ready? Wait for it…wait for it… You actually…talk to kids. Restorative justice practices ask that when it comes to student discipline: *Lower-level offenses can be redirected to the justice committee, which is made up of student mediators, with school administrators and teachers serving as advisors. The goal is to provide a nonconfrontational forum for students to talk through their problems, address their underlying reasons for their own behaviors, and make amends both to individuals who have been affected as well as to the larger school community.*

This is not a hippy, pie in the sky notion. It’s a structure that has been implemented for many years across a variety of schools, with often dramatic decreases in suspensions and student misconduct, in addition to improved social skills and overall school climate. So why haven’t more schools adopted this student centered strategy? It takes time, for one thing. As one expert puts it: *you can’t crash-course your way through restorative justice…One PowerPoint training won’t produce a transformation in school culture.*

Then there’s a little thing called an investment of resources. The long term transformation of a school culture requires a substantial investment in time, space, resources, and salaries (referred to going forward as $$$$$) The International Institute of Restorative (IIRP) Practices’ Whole School Change (WSC) program requires purchasing multiple texts, posters and other materials for every staff member, gaining access to a video library, paying for an IIRP leader to lead multiple professional development sessions, and provide ongoing consultation to school leaders. This is worthy and important work, but it isn’t cheap, and it’s a difficult commitment to make when principals are struggling to keep staff and manageable class sizes as their budgets are cut.

School Counselors, Psychologists and Administrators
Even without total discipline restructuring, there are other ways to simply talk to kids about the source of their behaviors without suspending them. This is why school counselors, psychologists, and administrators exist. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of them. At a Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) Board Meeting on December 8th, a 12th grade student at Digital Harbor High School shared how difficult it was to get the support she needed from the school counselor. Not because the counselor wasn’t hard working and great at her job, but because the volume of students she was responsible for was overwhelming. Board members proceeded to question the ratio of students to counselors at Digital. BCPSS Commissioner Thornton shared that a 200/250-1 ratio is considered good, despite the fact that Digital had a 100-1 ratio, and STILL lacked the ability to give students support when they most needed it!

God save the schools who only have a *good* ratio. Furthermore, many schools only have counselors who serve half days, who split their days between multiple schools. How much disruptive behavior could be proactively eliminated with an adequate amount of counselors? Although, guess what getting an adequate amount of counselors and other well trained adults, with their deserved salaries and benefits, working full time in school buildings would require? You guessed it, more $$$$$.

Meanwhile, far from getting more personnel, schools are cutting teachers and aides to stay within their revised budgets. Note: Thanks Governor Hogan. When class sizes increase, and support staff decreases, there often is no adult available to thoughtfully de-escalate with a child who has been removed from the classroom. In this situation, suspension is the easiest and least resource-draining response, even for teachers and schools whose values align with restorative practices. When an under-resourced environment is overwhelmed by the needs of the students, the practical will win out over the philosophical.

In this situation, suspension is the easiest and least resource-draining response, even for teachers and schools whose values align with restorative practices. When an under-resourced environment is overwhelmed by the needs of the students, the practical will win out over the philosophical.

Community Partnerships
What if we started partnering with non-profit organizations who can help balance the needs vs. resources scale? The Family League of Baltimore harnesses the assets of the surrounding neighborhood in order to create better supported community schools. Sounds great, is great, and yet again, such partnerships are only made possible by more funding. The cost of a community school coordinator is $75K a year, $20K of which the school is on the hook for. What school has $20K just sitting in the bank these days?

Teacher Training/Recruitment and Cultural Competency
Middle class, and particularly middle class white teachers and administrators, working with poor black and brown children, face a gap in cultural knowledge and understanding. This results in bad behaviors, a normal happening for all middle school aged children, to be interpreted as the aggressions of a dangerous child. Furthermore, educators can take this behavior as a personal attack against them (which I’m guilty of earlier on in my career, and still today in the hardest moments). Under this mindset, when teachers check misbehavior, they may turn to sarcasm, anger, or small insults, that provoke and escalate even more disruptive behavior. So there is often as much need for a teacher to be mentored and to go through anti-racist training as there is for a child to have a place to talk.

We can also bypass filling in white people’s cultural gaps by recruiting teachers from and of the communities we teach in. Student effort and achievement is often driven by their relationships with their teachers, and it is easier to form a stronger relationship with a student when you see them as part of your personal community. Jose Vilson’s experience echoes my claim, and notes how vital it is for students to see immediate models of success that look like them and share a common culture. Stronger relationships with students who can look to you as an immediate role model → less behavioral outbursts → safer, more academic space for students → less suspensions.

Sadly, people of color, and Black men in particular represent 3.7 percent of teachers in Maryland public schools. And nationally, no more than 2 percent of teachers in the nation’s public schools are Black men. Again, this set of solutions returns us to a similar problem. Intensive coaching, cultural competency coursework, studying the impact of black male educators on student outcomes, and recruitment of more teachers of color costs more $$$$$.

Mo Money, Mo Problems?
To the folks who say, *well we already give Baltimore City Public Schools lots of money,* or, *money is wasted on that bureaucratic black hole* [not an accidental metaphor], I, and a glut of peer reviewed research, declare bullshit.

To the folks who say, *well, we already give Baltimore City Public Schools lots of money,* or, *money is wasted on that bureaucratic black hole* [not an accidental metaphor], I, and a glut of peer reviewed research, declare bullshit.   

We have NEVER fully funded the schools of impoverished brown kids to the level needed to create common outcomes with their affluent white peers. Baltimore’s elite independent schools charge between $25,000 and $27,000 in annual tuition, and that’s for educating kids who are not living in deep poverty, who have access to plentiful resources at home, and who have opportunities for enrichment in their communities. Baltimore City must make do with approximately $10,000 less per child, and yet many of the powerful and politically connected private school parents have the gall to say we’re properly funding public schools in the city. The *money doesn’t matter* echo chamber is loud and persuasive, despite being demonstrably wrong.

Which leads us back to the original question: when a kid needs to be removed from the learning environment, if not suspension, then what? Whether we’re talking about philosophical shifts in student discipline policy, increasing staff, mentoring educators, anti-racist training, non-profit partnerships, or the studying and recruitment of more teachers of color, you won’t interrupt the student to prison pipeline without a significant increase in funding.

Until we give public schools the resources to provide an excellent and holistic education, we’ll continue to blame individual educators and children, instead of the institutions that create the circumstances for educators and students to be their worst selves. And our most vulnerable children will suffer the consequences.

dakittenzCorey Gaber is a 6th grade literacy teacher in the Baltimore Public Schools. Follow him on Twitter at @DaKittenz. Send comments, questions or story ideas to jennifer@edushyster.com.

6 Comments

  1. “The International Institute of Restorative (IIRP) Practices’ Whole School Change (WSC) program requires purchasing multiple texts, posters and other materials for every staff member, gaining access to a video library, paying for an IIRP leader to lead multiple professional development sessions, and provide ongoing consultation to school leaders.”

    But why do we need all that? Why does every school have to implement the same model of restorative justice, as embodied in a pre-packaged, professionally developed program? Why can’t schools work with the kids and staff in their own buildings to develop a program that works for them? It’s really just about implementing a bit of democracy in schools. The Founding Fathers, thank god, didn’t feel the need to pre-package some standardized program – complete with video library and professional development! – to run our country’s democracy (but think how rich they could have been if they’d have thought of it!). They created a document, left instructions on how to work with it and, if necessary, change it, and left the people to do with it as they would. Unless proponents of restorative justice are only in it for the money, I think they too could have a little faith that each school can do their own thing without “multiple texts” and “ongoing consultation”.

  2. Restorative justice is hard. It is intense. It requires reframing relationships between staff, students, staff and students, and so on. It calls for open, public recounting and reconciliation. (At some high schools in my district, restorative circles have required parents, probation officers, teachers, administrators, and the students involved.). And for restorative justice to work, everyone in the school must believe in the essential dignity of every other person. Everyone has to believe that the school community and its work have shared value.

    This sounds high-faluting because it is. We don’t do school like this. If we want to start, schools are going to need time, support, the safety to make mistakes, and personnel. Does this require purchasing a specific program? No. But it does require a real commitment, one backed with plenty of money.

    I hear lots of talk about restorative practices, but they’re rarely accompanied by the long-term commitment to actually changing how we do discipline. Sometimes I wonder if that’s on purpose.

    (Also, it’s pretty clear that the “Founding Fathers” borrowed liberally from other sources, an undertaking requiring some significant investment. Nor did their democracy function so well for all residents of the North American continent. One might argue that our educational disparities closely mimic the injustices of the early American nation, in fact.)

  3. “This sounds high-faluting because it is. We don’t do school like this.”

    Yep.

    We know what it requires to properly school kids, but this issue of discipline / justice is like any other having to do with our public schools. Those holding the purse strings don’t want to pay for it, not for other people’s kids.

  4. Also, providing a broader range of accessible and meaningful extra-curricular activities, such as performing arts, athletics, school newspaper will get students more engaged, and better develop inter-personal skills that would lessen the need for discipline procedures.

  5. It’s really hard to see RP and RJ criticized in the comments section of this post. It’s something I believe in as a veteran teacher of 14 years and now teacher of RP to school staff in CA.

    I understand and agree with the author’s comments about the troubling cost to schools/districts to do this work. Hopefully this burden is lessened in the next year or two as leadership (notably Hillary Clinton) grapples with appropriate interventions to interrupt the school to prison pipeline. PBIS and RP/RJ have supported teachers and schools in lowering their suspension/expulsion rates. Currently I do this training for free to a cohort of schools that are part a federal grant aimed at improving school culture.

    That said, this blog is a place where those of us who oppose corporate school reform come to listen and talk to each other about what we can do to improve educational opportunities for our kids. It’s frustrating that at times the comments section is a place where the same negative voices shoot down any idea that they deem “reformy”.

    If you come to an RP training, it is the opposite of corporate reform that seeks to standardize schooling. It is the exact opposite. That said, learning requires structure. If you’re totally in the dark about what RP even is, please watch this video of a classroom in Oakland. It will give you an idea of what RP can be. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdKhcQrLD1w

    Dienne, may I ask, are you teaching in urban schools right now? Or have you taught in urban schools in the last five years? Have you experienced a successful RP response to harm circle or a community building circle with students as part of an Advisory class? Do you know why the Restorative Questions are somewhat scripted? Do you know why norms need to be created and posted on a wall in order for people inside a circle to feel that it’s a safe space?

    100% agree that all school staff must intentionally work to create a restorative community for their students and families. You do this by building strong relationships with everyone. It’s not rocket science. It does take some emotional fluency, to quote researcher Anne Gregory of Rutgers.

    That said, a lot of structures are already in place in many schools to support building a restorative culture- Advisory, SST meetings, staff meetings, PLCs. Inside these existing structures, teachers and staff just decide to *be* restorative, that is, they decide to proactively build positive relationships and they decide to repair relationships after harm has occurred.

    Fair Process, Affective Statements, Community Building Circles are three simple ways to do this. They require people to think about how they use language to present ideas, to share feelings and thoughts, to hold/facilitate group conversations.

    With regard to responding to harm or conflict, this requires a more conscious shift from current discipline practices in schools. The school leadership and most importantly the dean or leader responsible for discipline has to understand how to use language to engage all stakeholders, seek input on how to make things right, and repair harm. For teachers, it’s not hard. It’s just a way of communicating that is new. It might require the teacher look at both sets of Restorative Questions, particularly to be sure she/he is doing right by the student harmed in an incident.

    We did this successfully in the South Bronx, without an expensive whole change price tag, in a school where we were unionized. We just agreed it was how we wanted to be.

  6. Great article! The school-to-prison pipeline conundrum caused several new California laws to pass that make it much harder to suspend and expel. Lawmakers assumed that administrators would latch-on to restorative justice, etc. But without the money, administrators simply no longer suspend or expel and there is no counseling. If a teacher sends a child to the principal with the hope that he/she will help the angry student de-escalate, the kid who just called the teacher a f*$%ing b#*ch ten minutes ago, triumphantly returns to the class with no explanation.

    So far, they have not changed the law that allows teachers to do their own suspensions. I hate to do it, but if a student causes my classroom to become hostile, I do it right away. Student who want to go home, know they just have to misbehave in my class. Those that want to learn know that my class will be a place that allows that to happen.

    I don’t like it, but I can’t teach without support.

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