Rethinking Suspensions

Student suspension rates at America’s public schools have received a lot of attention lately. Last January, the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Education released new guidelines recommending that schools replace long-standing “zero-tolerance” policies with a less punitive approach to student discipline. Prominent educators and child psychologists have similarly argued for strategies that cultivate positive learning environments, as opposed to measures that merely punish students for dangerous or disruptive behaviors.

Students who act out in ways that endanger themselves or others, or that disrupt the learning process, need to understand that there are consequences for their actions. More importantly, they need to learn how to manage powerful or difficult emotions, and to transfer their energy into safe and healthy outlets. Disciplinary approaches that rely disproportionately on punitive measures won’t help them make these changes. Suspensions harm the entire school community, and students on the receiving end of multiple suspensions are more likely drop out of school or become incarcerated at an early age.

More than Numbers

Districts around the country are beginning to reevaluate the use of suspensions on their campuses: some are making a genuine effort to preempt behavioral issues by enhancing student and teacher supports; others are using more superficial strategies to improve their suspension data while ignoring critical issues of school culture and student well-being. For the past several years, suspension rates at Green Dot schools have been on the decline. We know this to be true because we track these numbers closely and use this data to make constant refinements to student supports and staff training.

This year, across all Green Dot schools, out-of-school suspensions are expected to show a three-year decline of more than 25 percentage points.

But we’re motivated by something bigger than data: we’re building a strong foundation in our schools to address the common factors underlying many behavior problems. It represents a slower, more pain-staking approach to solving an extraordinarily complicated problem, but it’s one we believe will have a real, sustainable impact on the current and future success of our students.

Doing the Hard Work

First, we recognize the complicated social and emotional context in which our education system is rooted. Our students come from neighborhoods where violence is tragically common; many arrive at Green Dot schools trailing a long record of school infractions — they’re accustomed to schools where they feel disrespected or unwelcome, so they act out with the expectation that they will be suspended.

To halt this destructive cycle, Green Dot staff are trained to respond to the needs of each of their students, not just to their behaviors. This simple shift in perspective can have a profound impact: relationships between school staff and students play a considerable role in fostering safe school environments, particularly in some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. And we’re actively working on multiple fronts to reduce out of school suspensions and increase learning time for all students:

  • We strive to keep school populations under 600 students to facilitate closer, more meaningful contact between students and adults;
  • Teachers receive extensive, ongoing training on techniques to support students’ emotional growth and defuse potential problems;
  • We preserve a low student-to-counselor ratio on each campus, as well as on-site mental health personnel, to work with our most at-risk students;
  • We are working with the California Conference for Equality and Justice to implement a Restorative Justice program at our largest turnaround campus — Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy — that will facilitate structured, healing dialogue between individuals affected by an injustice;
  • We partner with City Year to provide mentorship, tutoring, and social supports in ninth-grade students — a transition year with profound impact on students’ future success.


The Challenges of Change

It’s important to point out that alternatives to punitive discipline policies typically are far more costly and complicated to implement. Public financing for schools, focusing on instruction, doesn’t cover these additional costs, forcing districts to make difficult trade-offs between positive behavior supports and other vital school services. Still, Green Dot believes this approach offers our students the best hope for success. Suspensions at Green Dot schools are declining and student safety is improving. A recent study by researchers at UCLA showed that Green Dot students are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, like binge drinking and gang activity.

There is still much more work to be done to bring about the kinds of systemic changes to ensure every student is able to thrive in spite of any personal challenges they carry with them onto campus. Teachers and staff need training to recognize and respond to student signals before they flare into disruptive outbursts; parents need support to help their children manage stress and emotional turmoil; and students need constant reminders from the adults in their lives that they are cared for, valued, and respected. There are no shortcuts and no excuses — change must begin with us.


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