As with many debates in education, the whole thing begins with a problem (too many suspensions), hot button issues are thrown at it to make everyone lose their tempers (racism!), and then everyone weighs in on what should happen, even though most of them have never successfully disciplined a classroom, or worked out consequences with an administrator that were effective. I have done both.
Suspension is not a punishment, really. It’s a cooling off period. For kids and for adults. When a kid threatens me, makes any kind of physically aggressive move toward me or someone else– then and only then I lobby for suspension. I don’t always get my way. Our head disciplinarian makes that decision.
Suspension is not a cure for kids who can’t sit still for emotional or medical reasons, kids who hate paper and pencil work, kids who are depressed or angry.
Unruly kids need quick, practical, consistent interventions. They need the help of a team of teacher trying to figure them out (is it ADD? a toothache? unresolved grief? dislike of the subject? personality conflict?). They need to meet with teachers and reflect on their own behavior. Discipline works like a ladder, and knowing all the rungs and using all the rungs keeps everybody calmer. Work up the ladder, and down it: warning, reprimand, detention, in-school suspension. I wish there were more use of restitution along the way– having kids actually give back, since they have taken away. When I’ve offered restitution as a choice (clean the room, water the plants), kids usually like it.
Every kid is forced to sit down with the books in in-school suspension. It’s what some kids need, to avoid spending the whole day engaged in distracting conflicts. It’s what the other kids need, to keep them from being robbed of quiet work time and fruitful collaboration and smooth presentation of information. If a kid needs in-school suspension like, every day, they’re a good candidate for an alternative school of some kind. No one school can work for everybody.
Kids who hate paper and pencil work need teachers to make things as hands on as possible, and some of them need to move into more hands on work as soon as possible. Vo-tech schools are supposed to serve these kids. Sometimes having multiple gym classes and/or art classes is enough.
Kids who are depressed or angry need counseling. The big news in Texas about minority students being disproportionately suspended is really no surprise. African-American kids are more likely to be angry. They have good reasons. A disproportionate number of their people are in prison, victims of violence and perpetrators of it, living in poverty. Hispanic kids see how their folks get blamed for ruining our country, and they see their language denigrated, as if English has always been somehow ordained by God for America. I’m pissed off about that stuff, too. Depression and anger are two sides of the same coin, and are often expressed in similar ways– violence against oneself, or objects, or other people. All behaviors that will get you suspended.
Teachers from peaceful neighborhoods might not understand that presenting yourself as powerful and capable can be a safety measure, not a rebellion. If in your neighborhood, you have to walk like a gangster and talk like a gangster to keep from getting the shit kicked out of you, I’d guess it’s hard to transition to a school atmosphere. It’s not necessarily that you want to bother the teacher. It may be that you need to show the class that you aren’t someone to mess with, or you are someone who will protect them. Self-representation is just different where personal safety is at stake.
People are more likely to perceive any angry expression or posture as a threat if it comes from a minority kid. We all live in this soup of society, and it’s contaminated with our assumptions about each other. Or, as they say in “Avenue Q,” “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” This is likely to lead to harsher consequences for minority kids.
We need more counseling provided in our schools. Our anger management group has turned kids from explosive to merely grouchy. Counseling is cheaper than prison, which is where some of our anger management kids were headed. A lot of them have parents in prison already.
It’s unlikely that things will change without better training for teachers, more collaboration with discipline (something we frequently do at my school). Nothing in my teacher training addressed conflict resolution. No one showed me how to present myself as an authority figure. No one demonstrated how to shut down a kid while allowing her to save face in front of the class. I figured that out on my own, somehow. At least enough to keep my class rolling most of the time.
the story on Texas school suspensions: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/education/19discipline.html?_r=1