Local News

Monday, Feb 15 2010 06:46 PM

School suspensions: Are they effective?

BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

Kim Baker's son was supposed to be sitting out recess. But, according to a notice sent home, he cut in front of other students waiting to play tetherball, then kicked another's shin and "punched his hand into his other hand in a threatening manner."

He was sent home and suspended from school the next day for disrupting school activities and defying authority of supervisors, the notice said. A week later, he was suspended again for throwing pencil lead at another student.

Baker's beef? His son is only in the first grade.

"Teachers took care of the problems when I went to school and explained to kids why they were in trouble," Baker said. "Suspensions, I think, only damage young kids' self-esteem."

According to several school districts' guidelines, students can be suspended for anything from making threats and drug possession to forming secret clubs, gambling, hazing and more.

But some educators and school experts say suspending students, especially in elementary school, does more harm than anything.

"Negative discipline, like suspending, does not help young kids," said Margo Pensavalle, a veteran educator and associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California's School of Education. "There are so many other ways of going about it than suspension -- positive ways. Work with the kids, don't throw them out of school."

Officials at Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, where Baker's son attends school, could not talk about his suspension because of privacy policies. But local school officials said suspending students is sometimes necessary in tackling behavioral problems, and for students to reflect on their actions.

Suspensions

Students should be suspended, Pensavalle said, if they pose a threat to themselves or others in school. But suspending a first-grader should be a rare thing, she said.

District guidelines, which cite state education codes, don't identify suspension standards by grade levels. Among reasons for suspensions: making threats, using electronic devices, defiance, forging, gambling, receiving stolen property, obscene acts, truancy and anything else that could get a student put in handcuffs outside school walls.

Among school districts in the greater Bakersfield area, the Bakersfield City School District and Kern High School District logged more suspensions for every 100 students last year than any other district, according to the California Department of Education.

Rosedale Union and Fruitvale school districts logged among the least -- about 10 suspensions for every 100 students.

That doesn't mean 10 students were suspended. One student could have been suspended many times. District officials say a tiny percentage of students make up suspension numbers.

"Most students never get suspended," said Gerrie Kincaid, assistant superintendent of educational services for Panama-Buena Vista. "There's a small number that get suspended often."

Administrators in other districts said the same. A student can be suspended no more than 20 days in a school year before expulsion is recommended, according to district policies.

'Safe, orderly environment'

Unless a student is involved in a major incident -- a fight, drug use or weapon possession, for example -- it takes several cumulative incidences to get suspended, school officials said.

Things like detention, office visits and parent-teacher conferences precede suspension. In high school, Saturday work is an option.

Parents are informed of discipline guidelines at the start of the school year, and students in junior highs and high schools are made aware of "zero-tolerance" rules.

Level of accountability increases by grade level, Kincaid said. Disrupting class repeatedly in the sixth grade would probably deserve a suspension more than a first grader, for example.

Suspension is a "last resort" at Rosedale Union, said Superintendent John Mendiburu. But when they're done, usually students return focused on school because they've had time to reflect while suspended.

In high school, the purpose of suspension is not only to have a safe and orderly campus but to "send the message to the students that there are consequences to actions," said Alan Paradise, director of pupil personnel for KHSD.

KHSD offers in-school suspension, where students do school work in a "safe, orderly environment." Students are sent home for such things as fighting for a "cooling-off period," Paradise said. But the large majority of students never enter the dean's office, Paradise said.

"We want to keep our focus on making a campus environment conducive to learning," Paradise said. "We want them in class and we want them to learn."

Students in middle and high schools sometimes disregard suspensions, Pensavalle said, and think of them more as "getting to go home."

Plans and parents

It's important to empower kids in school, and give them a sense of belonging, Pensavalle said. Many students who are suspended are the ones struggling in class and need more help. Suspending them at a young age sends them on a "downward spiral," she said. One solution is to set up a behavior plan with that student. It's important for school officials to be proactive, she said.

"There are kids who are difficult and challenging to teachers," she said. "But the teachers who are serious about student learning, they have a plan and help the child learn socially. They don't become adversaries."

In Panama-Buena Vista, a "student success team" works to correct behavioral issues. It includes a team of administrators and teachers working with parents to come up with strategies, like teaming the student with an older student, a role model.

"We want them to learn how to be socially correct," Kincaid said.

Initiating social plans can be difficult, officials said, because parents usually view their kids as not being at fault. Several parents, like second-grade parent Andy Nevarez, believe discipline begins at home. "You shouldn't leave it up to teachers to discipline your child," he said. "It's not their responsibility. Teachers are here to teach, not discipline, not baby sit."

Mary Roberts, who was picking up her sixth-grade granddaughter on Friday from Franklin Elementary School, prefers what schools used to do when she was a student. Suspensions, she said, are "more of a vacation."

"I believe in the good ol' days when they sent kids to the dean's office. A few swats would do some good," Roberts said.

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