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Stop the School Suspensions—But Don't Stop There

Banning suspensions may allow teachers the opportunity to correct behavioral problems in school—but who will give them the resources to do so?
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"When students are out of schools, they cannot learn." This sentiment is often repeated by those who crusade against an increasing tendency for schools to suspend unruly students, disproportionately affecting racial minorities and students with mental illness. This week, the words were uttered by Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who announced that students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, or first grade could no longer be suspended for non-violent behavior. As Alejandra Matos reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

The moratorium comes after the Star Tribune reported in August that suspensions for kindergartners through fourth-graders jumped 32 percent, from 889 to 1,175, in the past year. The increase stood in stark contrast to the other grades; overall suspensions were down 10 percent for the year.... Other districts around the state are also struggling with how to lower suspension rates while keeping unruly behavior in check.

Minnesota isn't the only state that's taking a hard look at its public schools' suspension practices. In our May/June print issue, Jesse Katz reported from Garfield High School in Los Angeles, a school made famous by the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. Principal Jose Huerta, who pledged to stop suspending students completely, said, "If I suspend them, I can't teach them." Katz wrote:

From Baltimore to Denver to Walla Walla, school officials are embracing measures similar to Huerta’s, determined to slow the machinery that annually suspends more than three million students nationwide—as many as half of them for relatively minor offenses. These moves are being propelled by a growing body of research showing that suspensions, rather than correcting bad behavior, disengage students and help funnel them into a “school to prison” pipeline.

To many liberals, the anti-suspension movement jives nicely with the push to decriminalize non-violent drug offenses, considering these charges disproportionately target low-income black and Hispanic populations. For them, it's even more delicious to know that hard-line conservatives like Bill O'Reilly hate the idea.

But the "if I suspend them, I can't teach them" rhetoric oversimplifies an incredibly complex problem in public schools. Just like most other education initiatives, there's a third side to the story. Banning suspensions may allow teachers the opportunity to correct behavioral problems in school—but who will give them the resources to do so?

As a bill makes it way through California legislature to curb non-violent suspensions and expulsions, a handful of interest groups are pushing back. They agree that the preponderance of non-violent suspensions is a problem, but fear that schools still lack the resources to help disruptive students—many of whom need mental health counseling. As Jeremy B. White reports in the Sacramento Bee: "Teachers need to be trained, which requires resources and coordination that have not always materialized, [Laura] Preston [of the Association of California School Administrators] said. Setting up interventions and conferences asks more of educators who are often already overloaded with work."

The mere banning of such suspensions will alleviate symptoms arising from our under-funded public education system. But it's far from a cure. —Bettina Chang