By Julia Steiny
Allow me to say right off the top that I believe each out-of-school suspension is a symptom of a mental or social issue. I'd call them symptoms of disease, but some are more like sniffles.
In 2014, President Obama's My Brother's Keeper sparked awareness not only of the frequency of suspensions, but also of the glaring racial disparities among those suspended. Some states are using legislation to curtail these kick-out practices that appear to be the starting point of the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Restorative Practices/Justice lens asks us to take a step back from the offending incident itself to consider the bigger picture. What does the offense tell us about the community as a whole — school, neighborhood, family? What contributed to it? A kid who has damaged property, behaved abusively towards a teacher or gotten into a fight must take responsibility for her action. But what does the behavior mean?
School staff ask about what happened, but rarely do they go deeply into the matter. Suspension is a quick, time-honored response. But its convenience cuts off any chance of understanding the kid, the symptom, or the conditions that nurtured the yucky behavior. I once heard a restorative guidance counselor ask a kid if his disruptive behavior was trying to say something. Without hesitation, he said: "We have no food. My dad's gone. I'm not sure where." What's a suspension going to accomplish?
Kicking kids out does not teach them how to behave in a community-appropriate manner. Nor does more time in front of the TV or video game get to the root of a mental or familial problem. Sometimes better classroom management, or more engaging instruction, would ward off unwanted behavior. And sometimes, to protect the other kids' learning, teachers feel they have no choice but to kick a kid out of their class. But usually, suspensions banish the problem only temporarily.
Four reasons why kids misbehave
The first two are opposite sides of the same coin:
1. Learned behavior — For example, many urban students live in families and communities where they are sworn at constantly. School staff, not uncommonly suburban themselves, can easily be offended by kids' hideous language and aggressive demeanor. It's ugly, don't get me wrong. But it's learned behavior. By all means, teach them why it's necessary to unlearn it. Help them understand that it should not spill into schools or the workplace. A restorative question might be: "Does this language (or other behavior) happen at home?" If so, it's private and needs to stay at home.
2. Unlearned Behavior, which is to say social skills not yet mastered — The occasional kid who comes to school eating with her hands has never been taught to use a fork. More often, when kids haven't been taught to take turns, they talk so intrusively as to be maddening. Others throw punches at the most minor offense because they've been taught to fight for survival.
3. Trauma — We have all experienced some degree of trauma in our lives — a car accident, death in the family, job loss. Healthy people manage to respond in more and less healthy ways. But kids, especially those most suffering from chaotic urban poverty, often act out as a way of expressing their distress. I knew a 6th grader who occasionally howled uncontrollably during the class. If you knew her backstory, you'd howl too. And yelling at traumatized kids often sets them off. Kicking them out effectively blames the kid for being triggered.
4. Brat behavior — Yes, some kids get away with whatever they can. I was one of them. To avoid a boring Spanish class, I snuck away with friends to smoke cigarettes. When we got caught, we lost privileges that I wanted back. I knew I ran a risk of consequences, but getting kicked out would have been an invitation to rebel yet more.
No one likes rotten, undisciplined manners and social skills.
But yelling, punishing, humiliating, lecturing, and all forms of trying to hurt the kid into compliance, do not improve social skills. They don't calm the traumatized child. They don't help the brat see her arrogant ways. They are the opposite of listening and modeling behavior we want to see.
Being heard is a powerful, palpable feeling. Suspensions shut the kid up. But what is the behavior trying to tell us? Unless we listen, we don't know. Traditional public schools have not been expected to take time to hear kids' voices, issues, and frustrations. As a result, problems and rebellion inevitably fester. We don't have to believe everything they say, but good heavens: ask. Listen. In a healthy community, all voices must be heard — kids, staff, families community members.
Because when community members — of a classroom, a school, a neighborhood — are satisfied that they're being heard, they'll establish trust. Yes, creating ways to hear each person is a heavy lift. But it is precisely what will end suspensions as we know them.