An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High School Suspensions
When kids get into trouble at school, traditional forms of discipline often lead to more trouble. Is there a more productive way to change behavior?
n December 2013, Colleen Walsh, a social-studies teacher at Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan’s Financial District, called one of the school’s four deans in charge of discipline. She had just had a short, heated dispute in the hallway with a 17-year-old student who had his cellphone out, a violation of school rules. Walsh, then 27, was an energetic teacher, entertaining and assertive, but something about the way she spoke to the young man, who was not her student, infuriated him. A junior who could be exceptionally charming but also combative, he started yelling at Walsh, at which point she contacted a dean in the hope that he could calm him so they could all discuss what had happened.
Leadership is housed in a tall, narrow building originally intended as office space, with revolving doors at the entrance and an echoing lobby. That day in December, the student had already taken the elevator down to the lobby after the confrontation when he encountered the dean, who, misunderstanding Walsh’s intent, imposed a punishment instead. He told the young man, who was on the school’s basketball team, that he could not play in that evening’s game and that he would also be suspended, because this infraction came on the heels of several others. The student (who declined to comment for this article), now even more irate, took the elevator back to the ninth floor. He burst through the door of Walsh’s classroom, where three students had lingered after class, and faced her, yelling, cursing, accusing her of lying, ignoring Walsh’s repeated requests that he leave the room. Friends tried to pull him toward the door, but he broke away, then hurled over one of the classroom’s chair-desks. They finally succeeded in pulling him out of the classroom, at which point a dean arrived.
Some kind of consequence was clearly in order, the deans and the principal, Phil Santos, agreed. The question was: What would it be?
For the past two decades, how to discipline students has been as hotly contested a subject as how to educate them. For much of that time, many public-school systems, including New York City’s, have enforced zero-tolerance policies that require mandatory suspensions for certain offenses. Originally generated in response to fears about weapons in schools, zero-tolerance policies, especially in New York, where Rudolph W. Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory had taken hold, signaled to educators that crackdowns on unruliness of all kinds were in order. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of student suspensions in New York nearly doubled, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, reaching about 450,000 suspensions over the course of the decade. In that era, infractions that once might have merited a call home, like shoving another student or cursing, were increasingly common grounds for suspension.
The broad implementation of punitive suspension policies gave researchers ample data, the analysis of which has yielded a body of work suggesting the failure of this experiment in discipline. Suspensions do not deter bad behavior, numerous studies have found, and most likely feed it by alienating students from the school community. Other studies show that suspensions are not just ineffective but inequitable, as students of color are more likely than white ones to be suspended for the same behaviors. In New York City, black students made up only 30 percent of all students from 1999 to 2009 but accounted for 50 percent of the suspensions, according to a N.Y.C.L.U. report. Additional studies show that a student who has been suspended is more likely to eventually drop out of school or end up in the criminal-justice system. (In New York, the heavy presence of school safety An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High School Suspensions - The New York Times: