NEW ORLEANS — The teenage girls knew they were being loud when they belted out Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and the gospel favorite “We Lift Our Hands” during lunch at New Orleans’ Sojourner Truth Academy charter school. But they never expected school officials would slap them with out-of-school suspensions just for singing in the cafeteria.
“They said we needed to be ‘toned down,'” said Breion Burns, 18, one of eight issued a one-day suspension for the boisterous singing in November 2011. The official reason listed on the suspension slips was “willful disobedience.” Two other students received two-day suspensions for allegedly cursing amidst the singing.
Several of the suspended girls were honors students who worried the blot on their record would jeopardize college admissions. They could not understand why administrators had opted for suspension over a milder punishment, like detention.
In schools across the country, out-of-school suspensions have become the default punishment for not only drugs and fights but also for threats, displays of affection, dress code violations, truancy, tardiness, refusal to follow directions, even four-year-olds’ temper tantrums.
Suspension rates have more than doubled over the last three decades across all grade levels. At the same time, racial gaps have widened: Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers, according to Department of Education data released earlier this spring. The Office for Civil Rights gathered the data from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, which educate approximately 85 percent of the country’s students.
That survey found one in five African-American boys received an out-of-school suspension during the 2009-10 academic year, compared to about one in 14 white boys.
National studies have also revealed persistent, although more modest, gaps between white and Hispanic students.
Suspension terms usually vary from one to 10 days, depending on the gravity of the offense and the district’s policies.
Experts say too few people link the rising, and disparate, discipline rates to lost learning time — a crucial connection given the stubbornness of the achievement gap between black and white students. Some schools even prohibit suspended students from making up missed work.
A 2011 study of school discipline in Texas found students suspended or expelled for “discretionary offenses” — those for which state law does not automatically call for an automatic suspension or expulsion — were twice as likely to repeat a grade as those who had not received the punishment. The study compared students from similar demographic groups and schools in an attempt to isolate the effect of school discipline as much as possible, although it could not prove time away from school directly caused the children to be held back.
Suspension “makes no sense because students are losing class time,” said Daniel Losen, senior education law and policy associate for The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “They are often not being supervised. They are not learning anything. No one is teaching them about misbehavior. No one is making sure they are prepared to return to school.”
Many teachers wouldn’t disagree. They caution, however, that when a few disruptive students consistently prevent classmates from learning, the needs of the majority should take precedence.
“We know suspension usually doesn’t work for the suspended student,” said Nick McDaniels, an English teacher at Mergenthaler-Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore, a city that has cut the number of annual suspensions by thousands over the last five years. “But there is a certain point when suspension benefits everyone else.”
Gwendolyn Lawson lost track long ago of exactly how many times the New Orleans schools suspended her niece, Janeisha, a ninth-grader.
“Sometimes it feels like every two weeks she’s being put out,” Lawson said in an interview last February. Janeisha lives with her aunt.
The state-run Recovery School District, which has operated most of the schools Janeisha attended in recent years, posted an out-of-school suspension rate of 11 percent for the 2010-11 school year. That was far lower than several area charter schools. Sojourner Truth, which will close down at the end of this school year because of poor test scores, reported a suspension rate of more than 40 percent last year. That means the school suspended more than 40 percent of the students at least once.
Lawson understands why administrators would need to suspend her niece for fighting, particularly if Janeisha causes the altercation. But she does not understand why the slender teen gets sent home for talking back to a teacher or walking out of class. Often, she says, academic frustration causes such “willful disobedience” or “disrespect to authority,” as the schools describe it.
“I’d be much happier if they had her clean the cafeteria, even paint the building,” Lawson says.
Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Janeisha has bounced among four different schools in New Orleans. Each school suspended her multiple times. It did not matter if the schools were charters. It made no difference whether her teachers were novices or experienced professionals. Eventually, Janeisha began ripping up the suspension forms in her anger over being sent home — yet again.
Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard, who assumed the post in January, said the district’s “priority is to make sure we have kids in school.” But since so many of the district’s schools are charters, many set their own policies as to what is a suspendable offense.
Dobard announced last month that charter school expulsion cases will now be reviewed by the central office. However, he anticipates no such centralization when it comes to suspensions, partly to protect charter schools’ autonomy when it comes to student discipline. But he plans to convene a series of working groups this summer aimed at lowering suspension rates. “I still hold the belief that we need to suspend kids less,” he said.
Janeisha helps her aunt clean and garden while on suspension. But she never does schoolwork because her teachers do not assign her any. “They just say if I’m suspended, it’s on me to catch up,” Janeisha says. The lost class time means she falls further behind, her frustration builds, and she grows increasingly likely to act out more, she and her aunt say.
Indeed, the online version of the district’s code of conduct from 2010-11 stated that suspended students would be counted as absent, given failing grades for the suspended days, and not allowed to make up work.
Dobard said he was not aware that had ever been the district’s policy. The current policy is to let individual principals make the call as to whether students receive work while on suspension, he said.
Nationally, school and district policies vary tremendously when it comes to what students do — or don’t do — while on suspensions. Some districts, including New York City, keep students in school settings during their suspensions, including designated suspension rooms or alternative schools. Other districts assign them work to be done at home and still others do nothing and even make it very difficult for students to make up work.
Interviews with more than a dozen school administrators, experts, and child advocates suggest the reasons for the increased reliance on suspensions, and the accompanying racial gaps, are varied and complex.
They say zero tolerance policies — and an associated “zero tolerance mindset” — have spread over the last quarter century. Throughout American society, there have been numerous efforts to get tough on crime. Teachers often face enormous difficulties getting unruly students to stay after school for detention, or even to get parents to come in for a conference. Films such as Lean on Me have popularized a no-nonsense approach to school discipline. School segregation has increased and many urban schools have high concentrations of students living in extreme poverty. No Child Left Behind put such an emphasis on math and reading test scores that schools may have less time to focus on meeting children’s social and emotional needs. And a few high-profile instances of school violence, like the Columbine shootings, have generated widespread fear of youth violence among school administrators and the public. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators may unfairly stereotype minority school children’s actions based on implicit racism.
“How unconscious bias manifests itself in an educational system is through expulsion and suspension,” said Andre Perry, associate director for educational initiatives at Loyola University’s Institute for Quality and Equity in Education in New Orleans.
Several experts also mention the application of the “broken windows theory” of policing to school discipline. That theory, first introduced in 1982 by political scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, posits that cracking down on seemingly minor and superficial problems, like broken windows or panhandlers, helps prevent more serious crimes.
The school-based version of the theory holds that taking a tough stance against small infractions, like tardiness and uniform violations, decreases the number of larger infractions, including fights and weapon possession. The challenge, of course, is that “fixing” a child is not so easy as repairing a broken window; and often days, or weeks, spent exiled from school in a home or neighborhood environment make students less likely to comply with school rules.
“I have no problem with requiring students to take off their hats in school. But sending them home when they won’t take off their hats? I have a problem with that,” says Jane Sundius, the Education and Youth Development Program director at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which advocates on such issues as school discipline and youth incarceration.
Sundius is particularly troubled by reports of schools suspending pre-K students in some communities, including in Maryland, where she lives and works. “A four-year-old accused of ‘assaulting a teacher’ is not assaulting a teacher,” she said. “They are having a temper tantrum.”
When Andres Alonso took over as chief executive officer of the Baltimore City Public School system five years ago, he made cutting the system’s high suspension rates one of his first priorities.
Alonso’s desire was based partly on his own experience as a classroom teacher. “If I sent a child out of my classroom, I was sacrificing authority and communicating the classroom was not the place for the child,” he said.
The district made several changes, including revising the code of conduct to eliminate suspension as an option for many first-time “soft offenses,” like talking back to a teacher. Alonso required principals to obtain his permission, or that of a designee, if they wanted to suspend a child for more than five days in a single stretch. He put an alternative school for students on long-term suspensions or expulsions, called Success Academy, inside the district’s central office. The last move was designed partly to send the message that troubled students were at the center of the district’s mission — not disposable.
The district also significantly increased its use of so-called student support teams, which convene at the school level to develop behavior plans tailored to individual children, and added to mental health services in some schools.
But Alonso left it up to individual principals to decide on specific approaches to cutting suspension rates inside their buildings.
For some schools, that has proven easier than for others.
At City Springs Elementary/Middle School, Alonso’s push coincided with Principal Rhonda Richetta’s decision to introduce a “restorative justice” approach to school discipline. Instead of automatically suspending students when there is a problem, staff and students sit together in circles to talk through many thorny and contentious issues. Often, the end result is a punishment tailored to the specific crime.
When one eighth-grader was caught selling BB gun pellets, for instance, Richetta required him to come to school early and sell fruit snacks to younger students. Richetta wanted him to learn that he could earn money through legal means (although in this case he was required to turn over all proceeds to the school).
Initially, Richetta received significant push back from teachers. Eight left during the first year “restorative justice” was implemented partly because they disliked the shift away from suspension.
“It was really hard for adults to change their behavior, particularly when they were used to the least little infraction resulting in suspension,” Richetta said. “In the past, if a child said something disrespectful, that was a suspension. If a child got up and walked out of class, that was a suspension … The problem is: It’s really hard to educate kids when they are not here.”
During the 2007-08 school year, City Springs issued about 50 suspensions, compared to 21 as of April 6th this school year, even as enrollment grew significantly. But Richetta considers the cultural shift inside the building — which she measures through the increased number of students smiling on their way to class in the morning — just as important.
“I think people are giving up on our kids because of their behavior,” she said. “They are not seeing that that behavior is really reaching out for help.”
Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis High School has also seen a sharp drop in suspensions, from well over 100 annually before 2010 to fewer than 20 so far this school year.
The school felt unsafe to students Markira Thomas and Jaquel Mullen when they started as freshmen in the fall of 2008. Earlier that year, a student had sucker-punched and pounded an art teacher in her classroom. (The school’s principal later alleged the teacher had actually provoked the fight.) Students smoked pot openly, ran through the halls, and gambled with dice and cards in class. On her first day of school, Thomas begged her mother not to leave here there alone.
When Barney Wilson, one of the district’s top principals, took the helm two years ago, he announced the whole school would embrace what he called “Lewis Love.”
It sounded corny to many of the teachers at first. But over time they discovered the slew of small changes that constituted “Lewis Love” — holding assemblies to recognize students for positive contributions, creating peer mediation programs, bringing parents in for conferences — transformed the school into a much happier place.
Essentially, it boiled down to better communication among students, parents and teachers, said Danielle Rembert, the assistant principal.
“Some people are like, ‘This is touchy-feely,’ she said. “But this is foundational. If we don’t lay that foundation, none of the other stuff we try will work.”
At other campuses, including Baltimore’s Mergenthaler-Vocational Technical High School, the war against suspension has not gone so well.
During the 2009-10 school year, Mergenthaler issued 342 suspensions and expulsions, one of the highest numbers in the district. Teachers say the vast majority of their students are not disruptive. But suspensions for the minority who do act out on a regular basis help keep order in the building, a fortress-like structure serving well over 1,000 teenagers.
“With more suspensions, the administration had more time for classroom support,” said McDaniels, the Mergenthaler English teacher. “They weren’t just chasing kids around the hallways.”
Since then, the edict has come down that suspensions must be decreased. “It’s kind of become like NBA rules: no blood, no foul,” says Tony Polvino, another teacher.
Teachers say the administrators try hard to be supportive, but they must inure themselves to all manner of verbal threats. Students usually cannot be suspended for declaring, “I’m going to kick your ass,” or calling classmates “bitches and hoes.”
“Hearing ‘F— you’ is not something that fazes me,” says McDaniels. “I can’t let it faze me. There’s nothing I can do.”
“I just say, ‘Have a blessed day,'” adds teacher Tom Proveaux, a 34-year veteran.
Ben Andersen, a second-year teacher, said when he interviewed for the job, administrators asked him, “How well do you let things roll off your back? How do you respond to being mistreated? What do you do if someone cusses you out?”
“If you say all that stuff won’t bother you, then they say, ‘Well, you’re going to do well here.'”
The Mergenthaler teachers say they do not like to suspend students. But they do not believe they have enough support, particularly enough social workers, to help students who consistently act out in offensive and disruptive ways. And keeping those students in the classroom to cuss out and harass their teachers and classmates can mean everyone loses out.
Proveaux described leaving the school in an ambulance one day after a particularly disruptive student shattered the glass in one of his classroom cabinets.
“If I prefer one student’s constitutional right to be here, what about the constitutional rights of the other 28 students?” he says.
In New Orleans, the Sojourner Truth suspensions of the singing girls were eventually overturned. Community activists rallied around the suspended students, printing T-shirts reading,”Save Sojourner’s 10.” The girls appealed their suspensions with the help of a local collaboration between area law students and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.
For Janeisha, the ninth-grader in New Orleans, the tide also seems to be turning.
In April, Janeisha’s teachers at Reed High School, where she transferred in January, created a behavior plan for the teenager. The plan allows Janeisha more flexibility to visit the school counselor during the day, and calls for a weekly check-in on her behavior with her teachers.
“They are finally asking what they can do to improve her behavior, apart from suspending her all the time,” said her aunt.
But Gwendolyn Lawson sometimes worries too much damage has already been done. The dozens of suspensions — and two forced school transfers that essentially amounted to expulsions — seem to have convinced Janeisha that some teachers and school administrators do not want her around.
If the behavior plan fails and the suspensions resume, Lawson suspects her niece will eventually give up.
“At some point, she won’t be wanting to go back to school,” Lawson said.
This story appeared on Time.com on May 22, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Republication is not allowed.