Students Speak Out on School Suspensions

Sep 13, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Much has been written about the negative impacts of suspending and expelling students—it leads to worse academic outcomes, increases the odds of students dropping out and fails to change the behavior it sought to address—but the lived experiences of young people who’ve been disciplined are rarely considered. A new Center for Promise report changes that. In Disciplined and Disconnected: The Experience of Exclusionary Discipline in Minnesota and the Promise of Non-Exclusionary Alternatives, the Center for Promise conducted group interviews with 38 middle and high school students in three Minnesota communities. They also interviewed school leaders about the promising non-exclusionary practices and what it takes to implement them. Researchers asked young people to speak about their experiences with school discipline, including, but not limited to, what led to the incident, who was involved in the resolution process and their subsequent experiences in school. Here is a snapshot of what they had to say: 1. Exclusion Interrupts Learning. Young people interviewed in the report talked about the negative impact that being suspended had on their academic performance. For example, one student who was chronically absent was ordered to go to a truancy court to clear up her truancy. But she had to miss school in order to go to court, which resulted in another mark against her truancy. This then led her to once again miss school to meet her court obligation. “Why do they make you go to court during school for missing school?” she asked in an interview. “And [pullquote]I got truancies for the days that I missed for going to court, too.[/pullquote]” Another young person said, "It's really dumb, 'cause my grades dropped because of it. I missed a lot of school. It was really stupid, and it didn't even happen during school. They didn't give me any of my work. I got suspended on finals. I didn't get to take them, so I didn't get full credits for my final, and then sometimes I still didn't get my final, so, I didn't get all my finals turned in and they didn't give me any coursework." 2. Exclusion Brands Students as 'Bad Kids.' Young people said that being suspended put a label on them, and this made them feel like they were then treated differently. “Yeah. It’s not hard to get labeled,” one young person said. “You can get suspended for headphones and stuff like that, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we got to watch you.’” Another said being suspended forever branded you a “bad kid,” “All you got to do is to get suspended one time and you’re labeled. I see it, like they follow the same kids around, like everybody knows, ‘Hey, those are the bad kids…’” 3. Exclusion Makes Students Feel Undervalued.  Many young people discussed feeling undervalued and unwelcome at school because of the school’s discipline practices. They frequently said that “teachers need to listen more,” “we need to have teachers that care,” “teachers need to get to know their students,” and “we need more engaging teachers.” Many also discussed the role that racism played in the school’s decision to discipline them. One student of color was being bullied by a White student and had teachers who often made racist remarks. When she brought it to the principal’s attention, he suggested that she should leave school if she didn’t feel welcome. “This White girl pulled my hair, and like, I told the principal, I was like you know what? All these teachers are being racist, and they straight up say they have their favorites. Like this one teacher says to me, 'Oh y’all Mexicans need to go back to Mexico.' I was like, no. I need to leave. So I went up to the principal. I was like, ‘This teacher’s being racist.’ He was like, ‘If you want to leave, then go ahead.’ So I left.” 4. English Learners Face Unique Challenges.  English learners also experienced bias, and they said teachers and staff didn’t engage meaningfully with them to explain the reason they were being disciplined—or that they were even being disciplined in the first place. One female student spoke about a disciplinary incident that occurred shortly after she immigrated to the U.S., when she was given a week-long suspension. No one explained what it meant, so she never realized she was in trouble. Here’s what she had to say about the experience: "It was in fifth grade. I was new to America. There was this group of girls who was trying to bully me. One day, was during recess, like break time, I was going out to play and this girl behind me trying to push me, tried to grab my hair and stuff. I turned, and I slap one of the girl face, and then the teacher, they saw it. They were like, ‘Come to office with me.’ They didn't say nothing to me—‘What's wrong,’—because, you know, I don't speak English. They sent me home and say, ‘You have one week off school.’ ‘Oh cool, a day off.’ [pullquote position="left"]I didn't know I was in trouble or anything.[/pullquote]” 5. It’s Important to Consider Root Causes. Overall, many of the youth participants said they felt like the school failed to understand the root causes of the behavior that led to them being disciplined. Sometimes students were getting into fights because they were being bullied, but teachers and schools didn’t see or understand that. Sometimes they were going through a difficult time at home and needed more emotional support at school. In response to a researcher asking what teachers should have done instead of suspending or expelling him, he said this: “Just talk to me about it.”
An original version of this piece appeared at America's Promise Alliance as "Five Youth Quotes on What It’s Like to Be Suspended or Expelled."

Eva Harder

Eva Harder is a writer and editor at America's Promise Alliance.

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