Moving Beyond Suspension

MB

Nathaniel Sweet, the former HCPS legislative intern, current Political Science major at the University of South Florida, and guest author of Shifting the Discipline Discussion, returns with this short reflection on differentiating between behaviors and, ultimately, what the fundamental challenge is behind behaviors at certain schools here in Hillsborough and across Florida.

I think that when we talk about our approach to student behavior, we need to make a distinction between different levels of behavior problems. If we’re talking about a student who gets in an altercation with a friend over some personal drama, or a student who’s trying their best but gets frustrated and acts out, those are textbook restorative justice cases. That’s all about developing grit, empathy, compassion, and conflict resolution.

Cases like persistent discipline problems, or violence against school staff, or major destruction of school property–those are different issues entirely; they fall well outside of reasonable expectations for classroom management. However, I still think that it’s unwise to use suspension in these cases. Instead, I think we should re-think referrals, not in terms of suspensions, but in terms of a referral you’d get from your general practitioner to see a specialist. More on that in a second.

Like you mentioned in our last conversation, it seems like the worst behavior problems are concentrated at extreme ends of the income distribution. Some of the wealthiest kids feel like they’re invincible, while some of the poorest kids feel like they’re invisible. The former think they can get away with stuff no matter what, while the latter believe they’ll be punished and pushed out no matter what. Entitlement at one end, disillusion at the other.

And in some ways, they’re both right. Very few rich suburban white kids end up poor later in life regardless of what they do, and the inverse is true for poor urban and rural kids. Your home zip code is a much stronger predictor of whether you’ll get caught up in the criminal justice system than your actual propensity to commit a crime. All the while, the animating force behind these outbursts tends to be something deeper & outside of the classroom–after all, disruptive students are very much in the minority.

When it comes to the poorest kids, then, I think that disruptive students need referrals in the sense that they’re sent to three resources: a) a counselor, to help them unpack their feelings about school and why they act out; b) a social worker, to uncover the bigger problems they face that might be driving their behavior; and c) an ombuds, someone who they can trust and rely on to advocate for them in creating a plan to get them back on track.

Critical to this framework is that it recognizes the seriousness of the student’s misbehavior without inherently criminalizing or pathologizing them. It approaches the student with curiosity rather than presumption, hopefully helping to re-build trust. Of course, that can only begin to happen if district leaders work with teachers and school employees to demand more funding from Tallahassee, but it always goes back to funding and leadership anyway, doesn’t it?

As a broader matter, I think that there’s a strong role for educators to play in movements advocating for policies that combat income inequality and child poverty. Rich kids wouldn’t feel like they were above the rules if we didn’t have an economy that concentrates such a huge amount of wealth and power in the hands of the few.

More importantly, however, we wouldn’t need to invest so heavily in wrap-around services like healthcare, nutrition, and mental health for low-income kids if those things were guaranteed as rights by state and federal governments. We wouldn’t need to worry about homeless students if cities and agencies guaranteed affordable housing, either through subsidy or public provision. We wouldn’t need to worry about students coming to school unprepared or without supplies if their parents had stable full-time work that paid a living wage.

To put a finer point on it, maybe the solution for helping poor kids learn is just to make them less poor.

As always, if you are interested in writing a guest post for the Teacher Voice blog or appear on the podcast to discuss the issues, please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and sharing with others, everyone!

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