Suspending Suspensions

Kicking students out of school rarely works out well, but what’s the alternative?

It’s April, and Shadle Park High School assistant principal Phil High-Edward has something to show a group of school staffers.

He gathers them in the career center, where he’s lined up 137 separate laminated pictures of 137 different students on a large trifold piece of cardboard, attaching them with Velcro. They are the faces of every student who had been suspended or expelled at Shadle Park from September to April. By the end of the year, the number would grow to 168 — too many to fit on the poster.

“These were kids we knew, with hopes and dreams,” High-Edward says. “Kids who wanted to graduate.” And no, most of them hadn’t been suspended for fighting, weapons or drugs.

“Everything we thought about suspensions was pretty wrong,” High-Edward says. “To be quite frank, the reason why most kids are suspended is they made an adult mad. We call that disruption.”

The next most common reason? Sixty-seven times last year, a student was suspended for attendance problems. It was absurd: Kids were punished for not coming to class by being told they couldn’t come to class. Add all these faces together, and the poster represented more than 11,000 class periods — more than 13 years of class time — missed at Shadle last year because of out-of-school suspensions.

And as High-Edward knows all too well, suspension has consequences. A teacher asks him how many of the suspended students stopped attending Shadle altogether. One by one, he begins ripping pictures away from the Velcro.

Only 26 years have passed since Spokane Public Schools stopped spanking elementary and middle school students. Now, increasingly, the district is moving away from another traditional form of punishment: The out-of-school suspension.

“As more and more parents have to make ends meet with the economy, when a child is suspended, there’s often not parents to supervise,” says Superintendent Shelley Redinger. And there’s another problem: As the district seeks to improve graduation rates, suspensions stand in the way.

Two years ago, researcher Mary Beth Celio spent six months immersed in student data, seeking the core of Spokane Public School’s low graduation numbers. She found clear signals that could warn schools a student was in danger of dropping out.

“Out-of-school suspension is a big tipping point,” says Fred Schrumpf, the administrator who leads the district’s dropout prevention efforts. A single out-of-school suspension sent a student’s graduation rate plummeting nearly 20 points. The more suspensions to a kid’s name, the grimmer his or her chances.

The same research also found dropout risk had skyrocketed among students with more than three unexcused absences. In fact, state law requires districts to file juvenile court petitions if a student has 10 unexcused absences in a year. While suspensions aren’t counted as unexcused absences, the result is the same: The student isn’t there to learn. Even short-term suspensions can last up to 10 days.

“When a kid’s missed school, whether they’re skipping or sick or suspended, they’re going to be behind academically,” says Schrumpf. Some kids beg not to be suspended, High-Edward says. Others pretend to shrug it off, like it’s just another vacation.

District-wide, the research has already had an impact. Last year, the district handed down long-term suspensions to about 200 fewer ninth-grade students than a few years ago. “Anytime you shine a light on something, you tend to see some change,” Schrumpf says. “Administrators say, I know if I [kick] this student out, that’s going to decrease their chances of graduating.”

Rogers High School, across town from Shadle Park, has both the highest poverty level in the district and some of the highest suspension numbers. From 2009-10, amid a discipline crackdown to change the culture, Rogers issued 1,458 short-term suspensions.

Since then, the strategy has shifted. Two years ago, Rogers moved to “in-school interventions.” Instead of sending them home, most suspended students were placed in a classroom where an intervention specialist taught them about “restorative justice.” Troublemakers might write an essay, pen a letter of apology or perform community service. The ultimate goal is to repair their relationship with their teacher and make amends.

“They’re talking about taking ownership,” Rogers assistant principal Brett Hale says. “They’re talking about alternatives. How could I have handled the situation differently? How could the teacher support them?”

Yet the tactic still left students falling behind in class. In response, Rogers switched its in-school suspension program to focus on intense academic support. Without the restorative justice piece, however, troublemakers kept reoffending.

But this fall, thanks to funding from the Empire Health Foundation, students subject to in-school suspension at Rogers will have both a certified teacher to help them with their grades and an intervention specialist to help them with their behavior. For cases where out-of-school suspension is absolutely necessary, like those involving fighting or weapons, nonprofits like Youth for Christ and the Boys and Girls Club of Spokane County may begin providing safe and supervised locations.

As always, cost constrains the options. In-school suspension usually requires at least one dedicated staffer and at least one free classroom. Schools like Lewis and Clark High School want to start using in-school suspensions, but haven’t found the funds.

“The Legislature said they want less suspension,” says Dan Close, assistant principal at LC. “We don’t want kids to miss school either. [But] they don’t give us the resources to do something about that.”

Ultimately, High-Edward doesn’t believe any form of suspension is a solution. Punishing without healing underlying struggles, he says, is “akin to looking out in a body of water when a kid is drowning, and just yelling at him to swim harder.”

Instead, he believes the secret is forging strong relationships with students long before they get in trouble. The families of all 347 incoming Shadle freshmen received a phone call from him this summer, an invitation to sit down and talk before school started. He met with 201 different families, asking kids about their fears, their middle school mistakes, about what’s going to be different this year. If they screw up, High-Edward already knows their story.

“This year we’re not kicking out 125 kids for disruption,” he says. He holds up papers brimming with bar graphs — Shadle’s suspension statistics. “This is the bottom. We’re not getting worse than this.”