Do I Really Have to Say That Suspensions Hurt Kids?

In the recent article “ Suspension Bans Hurt Kids,” which argues that a ban on “willful defiance” suspensions in Los Angeles public schools has led to lower academics, Max Eden ends his argument with a call to trust teachers. Yes, we should, and over 5,500 Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles teachers like me want to reduce our reliance on suspensions for minor, nonviolent infractions. Schools should not be a place where we marginalize students, but a place where we find ways to include everyone and hold them accountable by helping them learn from—and repair—their mistakes.

Looking For An Excuse To Punish

“Willful defiance” was an ambiguous label that allowed teachers to suspend students for rolling their eyes or speaking out of turn. And studies show that a majority of suspensions across the nation are for these relatively trivial nonviolent violations. From where Eden stands, on the outside looking in (he has never been a teacher), defiant students look like villains. But it’s actually trauma stemming from issues related to growing up in poverty, not being a “bad kid,” that causes outbursts. Often it’s the students who make the most noise who need the most love, not banishment from the school community. In my 13 years as an educator for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), I have taught scores of “willfully defiant” students and rarely did I think a suspension would improve their behavior. One year, a student I worked with closely was suspended for defiance. He had just recently witnessed his father's arrest, and before that saw his mother taken away by border patrol. I joined many of my colleagues in asking for him to receive counseling and support services instead of suspension from school. Unfortunately, our advocacy was unsuccessful and the student’s behavior only worsened. My students have stories that must be heard. And once you listen, you realize how much they have gone through, too much for a little person to handle. Under so much pressure they often act out. Yet when you take the time to build a relationship with them, you see them for who they really are: sweet kids who want support and guidance on how to navigate through the emotions they feel every day. When we suspend them, we are failing them and telling them, “It’s not our problem, handle it yourself.” And if a student does present a danger to others, they should be suspended and removed from school. But then we must use strategies to help reintegrate them into the school community. Eden and policymakers need to look at the big picture. We are in the midst of a crucial shift in education. Achieving strong academic outcomes and creating alternative discipline policies can work hand in hand. In the absence of suspensions for willful defiance, we must replace them with something: trauma-informed practices that address the real cause of the behavior while helping them to repair the damage. When the student whom I advocated for eventually received the support services he needed, he greatly improved his behavior and has since excelled at school. I have found great success with this approach. In my classroom, we used “ restorative circles” to build deeper relationships between students and myself while mediating conflict. In these activities, where we shared our challenges and feelings, I learned of the incredible hardships my students faced at home. Once I better understood where they were coming from, I knew how to better support them. And when my students saw my actions in response to their challenges, they knew I really cared. Building this community made my students feel safe and improved their behavior and academic growth. This type of work is starting throughout the city. LAUSD attributed practices like these, known as “restorative justice” to a 92 percent decrease in days lost to suspensions.

Misbehavior Still Must Be Addressed

Like Eden, I believe that we should trust in our teachers. But we can’t effectively use these trauma-informed strategies without resources and training, and this is why suspension bans can go wrong. Many educators do not know where to begin to help misbehaving students. Most of us do not have degrees in social work or training in how to support students impacted by trauma. So when teachers stop using suspensions without being properly prepared to replace them with these practices, students are left in an accountability vacuum. School districts must implement high-quality professional development in these practices and provide the mental-health resources to support our children. Once this system is established in LAUSD, and in schools nationwide, I hope Mr. Eden takes another look.
Christina Kim is an educator in Los Angeles and a member of Educators for Excellence.

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