Suspension Reform Keeps Students in School

Schools across the country can reduce the number of suspensions and learn from a recent legal settlement in Mobile, Ala.

For years, students in Mobile, Ala., endured school climates in which they were regularly suspended for such minor infractions as tardiness, talking and uniform violations. Over a three-year period, more than 1,700 long-term suspensions—suspensions lasting between 11 days and several months—were doled out.

The problem isn’t isolated in Mobile. Suspensions have been steadily increasing across the nation since the 1970s. According to the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that tackles inequity with strategies and community alliance, more than 3 million youth are suspended in the United States each year.

Students can’t learn when they are out of school on suspension, and as a result they fall behind. Research has shown that students who are suspended even once are more likely to drop out—and that suspensions are an ineffective method of changing behavior. Since zero-tolerance discipline policies, which drive suspensions, disproportionately affect students of color, they also serve to widen the achievement gap that educators work so hard to close. And worse, they pour students into the school-to-prison pipeline.

In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Mobile County Public Schools on behalf of the children of Mobile, charging that the district suspended students for minor offenses and did not offer students any procedural protections.

In a recent legal settlement with the SPLC, Mobile County Public Schools agreed to make significant changes to its discipline policy for the benefit of the students of the city. These changes will keep more students in school and learning.

Six immediate changes will be implemented:

  • Suspensions will be imposed only for serious infractions.
  • Administrators and staff will get training on suspension and other disciplinary options and techniques.
  • A group of parents, teachers, students and other community members will develop research-based alternatives to suspension.
  • The student code of conduct will be presented in a clear, easy-to-understand format for parents and students.
  • Students will be allowed to have an advocate, either an attorney or a school counselor, in hearings for long-term suspensions.
  • Students who are removed from school will receive homework assignments or makeup work.

These are simple steps that every school can take today to create a climate in which students are supported rather than pushed out. Supportive behavior policies are a win for students, schools and the whole community.

Williamson is associate editor of Teaching Tolerance.

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