California School District hoping to Eliminate Most Suspensions

Public schools in California and across the nation have decided to decrease the number of suspensions and instead use an alternative disciplinary approach.

Research has found that suspensions don’t work, and are more likely to cause students to fail or drop out of school. Educators agree.

“We should have ways in which we can deal with a student inside our schools without sending them home and losing instructional time,” said school board member Matt Haney, the author of the resolution. “What I’m hearing from teachers and principals is that they understand suspension is not an effective intervention for defiance.”

Thomas Graven, San Francisco Unified executive director of Pupil Services, says that one problem with suspending students for defiance is that the term “defiance” can mean a wide variety of things, from refusing to take a hat off, to yelling at a teacher or storming out of class. It also does not address the root of the problem. He believes that suspension for defiance should be a last resort and only used when a child becomes unsafe to have in a classroom.

Haney agrees, saying that most of the time the students who are suspended are the ones who most need the school’s support. Teachers are also learning new techniques to reinforce good behavior and finding ways to identify early on students who may need help.

Christine Yeh, University of San Francisco professor of counseling psychology, says these techniques will be key to the district’s effort. She says schools also need more counselors and social workers to support students and their families. Bad behavior can often reflect underlying and serious issues, such as trauma, family problems or community violence.

The district is also shifting to an atmosphere that aims to improve the relationships between adults and students. When students have a problem, Assistant Principal Ginny Daws tries walking with and talking to them. “In my own life, my best conversations are when I’m walking with friends,” she said. “I realized I could build more relationships (with students) running than by lecturing. If they trust me, they’re going to come talk to me.”

So far, the new approach seems to be paying off. Suspensions are down from last year, and more students are coming to talk to Daws when there is an issue they need help handling. “What I’m finding is when they get mad, they come talk to me,” she said. “They know somebody loves them, somebody is on their side.”

If the school board resolution passes as expected, the new district-wide plan will ensure every school has the ability to address student behaviors with suspensions, except when required by state law. Graven says that preventing bad behavior in the first place is a big part of the district’s effort.

“The idea is to suspend nobody. What it doesn’t mean is that we’re just tolerating bad behavior.”