Suspension – A bridge Too Unfair?
Suspensions of students have become a hot educational topic. Like all problems you have to identify the problem before it can be solved. Too often in education following the breezes of political correctness we jump to conclusions about things that upon further study are just not right. The suspension problem has a long history. I have not researched the subject in-depth so most of what I will write is anecdotal and generalized so let’s agree that in a modern society, anecdotal (non-data driven) opinions no matter how logical and carefully presented must be considered politically suspect and publicly castigated unless they support our point of view at which they become generalizations of someone else’s behavior. Experiences it seems are no longer considered valid unless they support your position while all other experiences must be verified by testing and statistical evaluation.
The argument against generalizations of course is stated simply by the old saw , “All generalizations are false.” That statement however is a generalization so it is also false. Generalizations, or if you wish, stereotypes are created by our brain or our society via the process of personal or shared experience. Most generalization are valid guidelines, some are not and some are created with a purely malicious intent. The fact that some are malicious must not stop us from using the valuable social guidance that comes from most generalizations, i.e. when pounding a nail I must be careful because if I am not I may suffer uncontrollable pain for a while, or calling the teacher an idiot is a bad idea. Generalizations are the embodiment of “those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
How do generalizations affect school suspensions and other social problems? When I was a student in the public schools during the “stone ages (Pre-ball point pen)” suspensions were generally extremely rare and almost always involved some variety of physical violence, criminal activity or property destruction. I believe that those criteria were true because at that time our society was much more controlled by expected norms of behavior for everyone Norms that were generally supported by the experiences of schools and parents alike. Because in that era both of the parents lived and interacted with their own kids on a constant daily basis(had to put up with them 24 hours a day) they tended to require a higher level of social adaptation of their children than we see in many homes today. Please note here that I am not arguing for or against divorce or day-care although I am biased in favor of doing neither if it can be avoided. As the contact hours between parents and children decreased due to work pressures, the ”Me” generation, litleleagueuization(I know that’s not a word but it is economical) and the advent of electronic communication aids the socialization of our children took a turn for the worse. To my dismay it is my generation that started and has allowed this de-socialization of our children to continue. I hope this social cycle has reached its zenith with the technologically absorbed teens and parents of today who often communicate and interact more often with their electronic devices than they do with their parents, siblings, the natural world around them and even at times their spouses and best friends. This was brought home to me when I was in a restaurant recently and saw an athletic team having a “team” dinner. At first glance the team dinner seemed normal then I started noticing cell phones. At one time 17 of the 30 or so individuals at the “team” dinner were using their phones interacting with someone who was either across the table from them privately or someone who was not a member of the “team” at all.
This personal and electronic de-socialization has led to some students who do not or cannot put their personal needs aside long enough to work in or with their school but seem instead determined in many cases to make sure that other students don’t get a chance to do their work either.
Forty years ago you certainly had students who would not do their school work and were discipline problems but they would at least pretend to do their work or available forms of punishment were strong enough as to be able to control unwanted behaviors. Because they were socialized and if they were not, they were controllable, teachers were able to control their classrooms so that those around them could learn without one or two students muddying the waters so badly that no one could drink from the pool of knowledge. Today most elementary classes will have at least one student (some have many) who will rob the other students of a full education on a daily or hourly basis simply because of the disproportionate amount of teacher time they use up every class period. These children are often un-socialized due to physical, chemical, or emotional neglect and are generally not susceptible to the weak discipline controls allowed teachers in the classroom today hence their behaviors continue often grow worse and suspensions happen.
In order to determine if suspensions are justified we have to determine their purpose. Most people picture suspensions as a punishment and so we hear things like. It’s no punishment to miss school, sit at home and play video games, eat snacks, go to the bathroom when you want, watch TV often followed up by the politically correct closer ,”How can you countenance them missing all that instructional time while they are suspended.” I agree that fun time is what happens for many kids who are suspended so by definition it is important that we note that suspension in many cases is not a punishment. Often it is not a punishment because, although they are suspended from school, their parents are not suspended from the need to work and thus the isolation and de-socialization continues. In their defense some parents will take the time to make suspensions punishment but most just do not have the time or the drive to do so. Suspensions are sometimes also compounded by the middle school phenomena of , “I’m suspended why don’t you skip school so we can play video games,” problem. Then you’ll get suspended tomorrow and I’ll skip school to play with your games at your house.
What is needed is a paradigm shift in the understanding of what a suspension really is. If we consider suspensions as a protective mechanism for the rest of the students in the school building rather than a punishment then it becomes much more palatable in our world of political correctness. I would guess that the suspensions for criminal acts, inter- student violence, and property damage have not proportionally risen that much over the years but that the suspensions that result from poor socialization, refusal to conform to instructions/rules , inappropriate language, ongoing classroom disruption, have increased dramatically during that same time period.
Until a first grade girl who is either standing on a work table or walking out the classroom door without permission at the same time flailing about with a ruler uncaringly hitting anything nearby living or dead, destroying the atmosphere of your class as they verbalize various verb and noun forms of “F**k” you don’t understand the need for suspension. When a child in your classroom, after you have tried all “positive and whatever negative reinforcements your school allows, feels free to physically damage materials, hurts others disrupt your class, uses truly abusive/ profane language aimed at you or in your classroom and flatly refuses to conform to even the simplest request the only viable option to protect the education of others in your class is suspension. Please note that at the same time that this child may be describing my parentage in language more appropriate to a vessel on the Bering Sea you as a teacher are not even allowed the mild phrase of, ” Please shut up,”
The mismatch is clear, the teacher cares about their class the child often only about themselves. If so who should we protect the victim or the perpetrator, right now the victims are losing both the academic and discipline battle. I would sum it up by paraphrasing Joe Friday of “Dragnet” as he said it best when he said our job is to “Protect The Innocent,” not just punish the guilty.