Schools finding suspensions ineffective for changing student behavior

Back to School / Missing Class: The last in a series

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First school officials say how important it is to be in class.

Then they tell them not to come.

More than 30,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to public school students -- some of them repeatedly to the same students -- in kindergarten through 12th grade in Allegheny County alone in 2011-12, the most recent year for which countywide data are available.

About this series

As the school year starts, attention is on school attendance. Here's a quick glance at the series:

Sunday: Absenteeism

Monday: Truancy

Today: Suspensions

The numbers illustrate the tension between keeping kids in class and keeping schools safe and orderly.

In some schools, more than a third of students have been suspended at least once.

"If you're suspending a third of the kids, that's a huge loss in educational minutes," said Rob Horner, professor of special education at the University of Oregon and co-director of a federal technical assistance center on positive behavioral interventions and supports.

Why do students get suspended?

A report from Regency Park Elementary School in Plum listed these reasons for one-day suspensions: punching another student in the chest, giving a substitute teacher the middle finger, and bullying and insulting another student.

Longer suspensions typically are for more serious offenses. Suspensions may last from one to 10 days. Longer exclusions are expulsions.

Many school districts have student codes of conduct that provide for progressively stiffer penalties for older students, repeat offenders and serious offenses. Such policies often include mandatory exclusions in cases of drugs, alcohol or weapons.

Some schools are finding alternatives to suspension, including practices aimed at preventing misbehavior.

"Investing in preventing problems is more effective and more efficient than simply retribution and responding to problems," said Mr. Horner.

About 1 in 5 of the nation's public schools is using schoolwide positive behavior intervention and supports, including 40 school buildings in 12 school districts, seven charter schools and one special needs private school in Allegheny County.

Mr. Horner said these supports require building a schoolwide culture with clear, consistent expectations of positive behavior. All students are taught specifically what being respectful or other rules mean in the classroom, cafeteria, halls and elsewhere. Extra help is focused on those who struggle with learning the rules.

Using positive behavior supports has proved so effective at Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood that the number of suspensions fell from 425 in 2011-12 to 30 in 2012-13.

At the same time, the percentage of Faison teachers rating the building as a safe environment grew from 52 percent to 91 percent.

"Our teachers believed in it, they bought into it, they designed the systems that were needed for it, and they utilized it," said LouAnn Zwieryznski, who became principal in 2011-12.

At Faison, children are taught specifically how they can become "positives" or "lions;" movement between classes is carefully organized; an academy with a small teacher-student ratio focuses on students who need extra help with behavior; and children caught doing good behavior are publicly praised.

At the daily meeting of all first-graders last week, to the cheers of staff and students, classes were praised for turning in homework, putting proper headings on papers and cleaning up behind themselves in the cafeteria.

"Faison is not an outlier," said James Palmiero, co-director of Pennsylvania Positive Behavior Support and director of the Pittsburgh office of the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, known as PaTTAN.

PG graphic: Student suspensions
(Click image for larger version)

"Most schools implementing with fidelity and doing the good work Faison did are getting those kind of large changes in their data fairly quickly," he said.

While suspensions are intended to improve student behavior, research shows otherwise, said Russell Skiba, professor in counseling and educational psychology and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

"There isn't any evidence that suspension improves student behavior," he said.

Even controlling for poverty and wealth, Mr. Skiba said, "If you have higher rates of suspension, it's associated with lower achievement."

Mr. Skiba, who was a member and lead author of the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Zero Tolerance, noted the American Academy of Pediatrics has drawn similar conclusions.

"We can't say that a kid suspended in first grade is on the fast track to the local prison, but clearly we can say that any suspension increases the risk for future negative outcomes," he said.

"These things probably cascade. The more a kid is removed from school, the higher the probability they're going to become disengaged. ... You start getting a little cycle going of all of those things."

Despite the negative effects of suspensions, Mr. Skiba isn't calling for a moratorium on them, saying, "Clearly, there will be situations in which there is a behavior that's dangerous that threatens the safety of the school, something fairly severe."

Since a school shooting in Columbine, Colo., left 15 dead in 1999, zero tolerance has been more prominent on the nation's radar. Zero tolerance often leads to suspension or expulsion.

As to the positive effects of zero tolerance, Mr. Skiba said, "They haven't been documented yet if there are."

In state Safe Schools reports in 2011-12, the most recent year available, more than two-thirds of the suspensions in Allegheny County were for "conduct," typically less serious offenses than the 50 offenses on a state list.

"I heard from one little boy who had been suspended for three days because he told the teacher she was stinky. These types of suspensions usually come at the end of a frustrated rope," said Nancy Potter, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center.

She said one of the challenges in reducing the number of suspensions is inadequate resources for schools.

"School districts don't have the resources they need to fully support their students and fully support their teachers, which leads to not having guidance counselors, not having social workers, not having school-based mental health support but also having things like increased class sizes.

"When schools don't have funding to implement evidence-based schoolwide strategies, like schoolwide positive behavior support, they are stuck with the last option, which is suspension," Ms. Potter said.

Suspension rates across the county

Across Allegheny County, the number of suspensions vary widely.

According to Safe Schools reports for 2011-12, the number of suspensions totals a quarter or more of the enrollment number in Cornell, East Allegheny, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, Pittsburgh, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.

Suspension rates of about 20 percent and up also can be found at most charter schools in Allegheny County, including all of the Propel schools except Propel East.

With an emphasis on positive behavior support this fall, Propel superintendent Tina Chekan said, "I anticipate we'll see a drop in suspensions this year."

At Career Connections Charter High School in Lawrenceveille, the number of suspensions nearly equaled the total number of students in 2011-12.

Career Connections CEO Tim McIlhone said, "It means we are really pushing a very disciplined environment."

Many schools suspend students in every grade level while some showed no out-of-school suspensions in 2011-12 below grade 5.

In Bethel Park, which has few elementary suspensions, Dorothy Stark, principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary and director of elementary education, said that when a child shoves another child or has mean words, "we try to get to the bottom of it."

While a serious incident could result in suspension, she said an incident usually results in teaching on how to interact positively, parental contact, social worker involvement, lost recess or behavior plans.

On rare occasions, a child gets in-school suspension, which, in this case, means doing work while sitting at a desk next to the principal's desk.

"I help the child. He has lunch with me, recess with me," she said. "Usually, I find out more about that child."

Patricia Nolan, principal of Donaldson Elementary in the West Allegheny School District, also rarely suspends a student.

She said the mix of students for each teacher is carefully selected and an anti-bullying program has been effective.

At the high school level, Mt. Lebanon School District had just 18 suspensions in 2011-12, about 1 percent of the school's enrollment.

Ronald Davis, Mt. Lebanon assistant superintendent of secondary education and a former high school principal, said that in addition to parents and students focused on academics and extracurricular activities, the school has a three-pronged proactive, preventive approach: Expectations are explained clearly at the start of the year; officials are visible throughout the school day to prevent incidents and engage students in conversation; guidance personnel offer support.

More than half of the suspensions in Allegheny County are in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The state Safe Schools report shows Pittsburgh Public Schools issued 15,522 suspensions -- including 10,266 for conduct in 2011-12.

The suspensions covered every grade level in K-12, including 233 in kindergarten, growing to 1,383 in ninth grade and falling to 776 in 12th grade. The largest numbers were in grades 7, 8, 9 and 10.

While there are still thousands of suspensions, Pittsburgh Public Schools reduced the number by about 30 percent from 2011-12 to 2012-13.

Superintendent Linda Lane said, "Certainly it can go lower."

However, she noted, "Inappropriate behavior must be addressed. We can't give kids a pass on that. We do know that suspension is a tool we sometimes use."

But she said it can't be the only tool. She said school climates need to improve, and re-entry plans need to be in place for students upon their return so the behavior doesn't repeat.

Pittsburgh provided data showing that in 2012-13 there were 10,695 suspensions given to 5,015 students. That's not only fewer suspensions but fewer students -- more than 1,000 -- than the previous year.

While black students account for 55 percent of the enrollment, they made up about 81 percent of suspensions in the state Safe Schools report in 2011-12.

There's a similar pattern statewide where 15 percent of students are black but half of the suspensions went to black students in 2011-12.

In the Woodland Hills School District, 90 percent of the 2,229 suspensions in 2011-12 went to black students. Enrollment is 65 percent black.

"If I could answer the question exactly why, I could fix it," said Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson, noting he is committed to addressing it.

Males also often get more suspensions than females.

Keystone Oaks High School principal Scott Hagy thinks improving attendance is key to improving achievement.

Now in his 17th year as principal, he no longer suspends students who miss after-school or Saturday detention. Instead, students can't participate in any school activities until they make up the time.

He used to suspend for two days students with tobacco on school property, but, as of last school year, he had another alternative for that and some other offenses: a peer jury in which students set other consequences.

Looking at the absence rate, he said, "We were part of the problem. It wasn't just the kids not coming to school. We were suspending too many kids."

Correction, posted Sept. 3: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Rob Horner, professor of special education at University of Oregon.


Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.


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