We don’t suspend students too often in my school because it’s something I’m convinced doesn’t work. Years of research shows that. In fact, it not only affects the child suspended, suspension affects the climate around him or her, and subsequently, even the students who were not suspended.
The problem: I saw a national study, seared into my memory like a raw, fresh burn. Black children were suspended at a rate of four times that of their white peers. At our opening day faculty meeting a couple of years ago, I presented this statistic to my faculty and proceeded to share our school wide statistics over the prior three years: we suspended black children at a rate of two times that of their white peers.
I could see some hearing this in the auditorium breathe a sigh of relief. We were better. But, I challenged them. That’s not good enough. Why were we still suspending black students at a rate twice that of white children? We had to employ alternative interventions that did not disproportionately take these children out of the classroom for punishment.
Like any effective school intervention, we should apply these for all students, but dare I say, more so for those in higher suspension rate categories. There–I said it. So we did. These interventions were unconventional, and I suspect that is why they worked. There is nothing wrong with sending a child to a guidance counselor or issuing lighter discipline where possible. Yet conventional methods weren’t working and a path of persistent resistance painfully and stubbornly remained.
Following are several simple, yet effective interventions that successfully lowered our overall suspension rate by one-third (33 percent), and brought our black student proportion nearly in line with white students.
Restorative service: This is a play on restorative justice, but with a mentoring twist. Upon being referred for an infraction, students and parents are offered an alternative to traditional discipline, as long as the violation is not an offense that requires law enforcement, and often in spite of it. Students meet with a teacher trained in guiding a child through the process of understanding how their actions may have impacted others, and themselves. The teacher is not assigned to the child in school, so there is no academic bias–this makes it easier for the mentoring role to flourish. A meeting is arranged and an activity is facilitated by the teacher mentor. After, the teacher and student are bonded, and when they see the child in the hall, they can help support and redirect them in positive ways.
Middles to Littles: This happened by accident, and upon discovery, it can be used anywhere school communities have a preschool program, or one they can connect with nearby. For me, the preschool program was thrust into my middle school due to overcrowding. Yet if the preschool program is not housed in your school, you can use digital resources like Google Meet to video conference. A child who has faced disciplinary action is encouraged to set a goal to read to preschoolers, books such as Dr. Seuss and other childhood favorites.
Children benefit from this because it’s a win-win. They are encouraged in a positive and altruistic way to read to little children, and little children are unbiased, excited and love older kids, whether they are black, brown or white, or other. In my school, it’s cool to do this among some of the kids who experience the greatest difficulties, including those who face their own learning challenges. Pictures are taken, certificates issued, and t-shirts proudly worn. Win-win! Remember, you can incorporate this digitally, especially now that we have all grown accustomed to digital conferencing.
I’m More Than Just That: High schoolers visit my middle school every school year, to share their raw experiences of facing bullying and/or discrimination. Importantly, black teens share their experience of facing the N-word, and more marginalizing behaviors. Children who struggle with sexual identity, Muslim children, Asian children, children with weight problems.
Children of all walks speak on stage to our middle schoolers and following this, they engage in one to one discussions with students who wish to come see them after the assembly. The connections are inevitable because everyone shares their diverse stories. The premise was born from this simple, yet powerful introduction by our first ever speaker 5 years ago.
Our first-ever speaker, a high school student stood on stage and announced, “I like pizza.” Thundering applause of agreement. “I like playing video games.” Louder applause. “I like hanging out with my friends.” Still louder. “And, I am gay.” Silence. After a seeming eternal pause, he added. “And I tell you that last fact because I am so much more than just that.” Hence, a powerful phrase was born in our community. The program returns every year and it is a student and faculty favorite, for all the right reasons.
Bear in mind that all of these interventions are relationship building, they are simple;, and they are replicable. They can operate as stand-alones to impact your fair treatment of students, or synergistically together as they do In my school.
Remote and digital implications: Given the unknowns regarding large group assembly of students, and in person options, all of these interventions can operate digitally. Think about it–now that everyone is familiarized with video conferencing tools, we can run webinar formats, one-to-one interventions via video, and read to preschoolers by sending their parents a link to go watch and interact with the older student. Even the one-to-one post-assembly high school-middle school student meetings can be managed digitally. Don’t let the hurdles stop you–like any equity intervention, the right opportunities are worth working around perceived roadblocks and should be employed with the same fidelity and promotion.
Putting it all together: What better way to counter disciplinary discrimination in schools? I have found that stacking these together, we fight institutional discrimination, reversing course to invigorate institutional equity. That is the kind of school I want to be the leader of, my school community to be proud of, and children of all walks of life to feel liberated to attend.