Discipline strategies must incorporate the learning and behavior needs of each child with the desired outcomes if they are to correct maladaptive behaviors. Alternatives to suspension exist and must be used. Any form of suspension should be (a) based on the student’s best educational interests, (b) conducted in a manner that teaches the student more appropriate behaviors, (c) supported by empirical research, and (d) used as a last resort.
When I worked for Alberta Learning’s Department of Special Education and oversaw the design, implementation, and evaluation of efforts to improve student conduct and reduce violence in schools, out-of-school suspensions became an issue requiring review. A large number of inconsistencies existed in the use of suspensions within and across school districts, and the rate of suspensions was increasing significantly. It became clear that suspension was one of the most commonly used disciplinary measures for dealing with problem behaviors. There was seemingly no end to the use of suspensions, nor was there a trend to reduce its use; yet, no school district was able to demonstrate its effectiveness in improving student conduct.
These facts generate the following questions:
If school districts cannot prove that using suspensions is an effective strategy for improving student conduct, why do school officials use it so frequently?
Can school officials conclude with confidence that certain behaviors are reduced through suspensions?
School officials must take these questions seriously because some day the courts may have to decide whether the law upholds the school official’s decision or supports a challenge resulting from a student’s suspension.
In seeking answers to these questions, I conducted a review of research and discipline practices commonly used in schools, which revealed some very interesting information (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 1999; Openheimer and Ziegler, 1988; Rosen, 1997). Openheimer and Ziegler, for example, identified five factors most often associated with students who are suspended:
a history of poor behavior
academic achievement below grade level
repeated a grade
attended multiple schools
attended schools with high rates of suspension
The National School Board Association (1984) came to the following conclusions:
Suspended students are often the most in need of direct instruction.
Students frequently regard suspension as a reward rather than a punishment.
Removing students from schools may contribute to delinquency by putting more jobless youth on the streets.
Suspended students are often labeled as problem kids for the rest of their school career.
Suspensions allow teachers to avoid developing more effective classroom management techniques.
Suspensions are generally used for minor infractions of school rules rather than for seriously disruptive behaviors or violent acts.
Minority students are disproportionately suspended or expelled.
According to the research conducted by the British Columbia Ministry of Education (1999), the suspension of students has the following results:
does not have the same effect as in years past due to the changing nature and extent of behaviors in today’s society and changes in family and community structures;
contributes to a student’s alienation from school;
increases dropout rates;
contributes to academic failure;
appears to be a factor in student involvement in risky or antisocial behaviors;
may precipitate more serious crimes in the community;
may have no effect or even increase the likelihood of the behavior recurring rather than reducing the problem behavior; and
may increase aggressive or avoidance behaviors.
Rosen (1997) identified the top 10 reasons for suspensions:
defiance of school authority
failure to report to after-school detention or Saturday school
use of profanity
damage to school property
dress code violations
absence from campus without permission
The National Centre for Educational Statistics (1997) surveyed school principals to determine their perceptions of common discipline problems in schools. The top three problems cited by in this study were as follows:
student tardiness (40%)
absenteeism or skipping classes (25%)
physical conflict among students (21%)
Are these offenses so serious as to deny students their right to public education? Few, if any, of the above reasons appear to be serious enough to temporarily terminate a child's education. Can school officials prove with confidence that the discipline issues just listed are effectively reduced through suspensions? Most of the reasons are violations of school rules and defiance of authority. It is obvious that out-of-school suspensions need to be reserved for more serious or violent offenses.
Generally, educational practices for students with serious behavior problems have not had positive outcomes. By the time children reach early adolescence, a history of antisocial behavior and rejection by peers and adults has been established. As a result, excessive dropout rates, high rates of academic failure, poor achievement test scores, low graduation rates, and poor postschool adjustments have been noted as typical outcomes for these students (Eber, Nelson and Miles, 1997).
According to Knitzner (1993), the factors that limit positive outcomes for students with behavior problems included the following:
unavailability of appropriate support services in schools
lack of collaborative planning among child-serving agencies
lack of intervention coordination across the child/ youth’s home, school, and community environments
Reasons cited for this lack of effective intervention included the following:
conceptual biases on the part of school personnel
structural disincentives within various agencies that serve children with behavior problems
disagreements about practices among professionals
a lack of focus on the instructional needs of these children (Knitzer, 1993)
Alternatives must be found
What is the purpose of the education system? In the province of Alberta, it is to develop self-reliant, responsible, caring, and contributing members of society. Schools play a supportive role to families and communities in helping students develop desirable personal characteristics and the ability to make ethical decisions. Schools also help students take increasing responsibility for their learning and behavior, develop a sense of community belonging, and acquire an understanding of community values and how they relate to personal values.
All school officials are guided by federal and provincial/ state legislation and by school board policy when suspending or recommending expulsion of a student. Court decisions and human rights legislation place a high priority on the rights of students to an education. All children between the ages of 6 and 16 (depending on each province/ state legislation) have a right to access an education in a given school year in accordance with compulsory education statutes. Too often, those students who are not capable or compliant enough are denied access to education programs by school officials when they reach age 16. This is due, in part, to the limits of compulsory education and to the educators' lack of knowledge regarding the law as it pertains to various rights in the education system (F. Peters and Montgomerie, 1998). Either encouraging students to quit school or counseling them out of educational programs at age 16 is, in essence, allowing the student to shoulder the responsibility for the failure of the education system to adequately meet his or her needs. Ross-Epp (1996) contended that school staff members do not see the academic failure of a student as their responsibility or as a failure to provide meaningful educational experiences. The blame for a lack of industry or ability is shifted to the student – or to the parents for failing to provide a positive environment or to support school initiatives.
Common practices in schools should not contribute to violent behaviors by students. Camargo-Abello (1997) identified some common practices that have the potential to sow the seeds of violence:
failure to offer equal educational opportunities
encouragement of dropouts
violation of students' human rights
preference for authoritarianism as the way to resolve conflicts
repressive effects of rules that limit expressions of emotion and interests of students
The seeds of violence can be found in any educational practice or procedure that interferes with student learning. Ross-Epp (1996) further argued that educational systems are complicit in their abuse of children through “systemic violence,” defined as the unintentional consequences of procedures implemented by well-meaning authorities in a belief that the practices are in the best interests of students. When students with behavioral deficits are removed from school or drop out, they suffer from an incomplete education, often accepting the blame and economic deprivation associated with academic failure as their own. The irony, explained Ross-Epp, is that when the student who is compelled to attend school is failed by the system, it is the student who accepts responsibility for the institution's failure. Systemic failure occurs when the positive impact on some students is only possible through a negative effect on others. Excluding students with serious disruptive behaviors from an education is no more moral than forcing the most critical patients from an emergency room (Brendtro and Long, 1995). The number of students identified with severe behavior problems continues to grow, and there is no evidence that suspensions reduce behavior problems over the long term.
Many researchers have concluded that other consequences and programs must be made available (Glass, 1994; Jackson, 1995; Neel, Alexander and Meadows, 1997; Quinn and Rutherford, 1998; Sprague, Sugai, Horner and Walker, 1999; Sugai, Bullis and Cumblad,1997; Walker, Colvin and Ramsey, 1995). Consequences for disruptive behaviors should be meaningful, age appropriate, progressive, flexible (allowing some individualization), enforceable, written, and communicated to students and parents in terms of what the student will know and be able to do. Unless the student cares about the consequences imposed (or privileges denied) he or she has little incentive to comply with a school’s code of conduct. Students are as concerned about the fair and consistent application of consequences as they are about the consequences themselves. To maintain consistency of enforcement throughout the school, members of the school community need to clearly understand and support the code of conduct (Alberta Learning, 1999). As a result of the review of case law, common discipline practices, and student conduct in general, the Alberta government restricted school officials' ability to suspend and expel students. Students and their parents must now be allowed to present their case, and school officials must also ensure continued access to an education program and set out the terms for re-enrollment.
To effectively address the special needs of students with behavior problems, preferred and promising practices are recommended (M. T. Peters and Heron, 1993). Preferred describes practices for which supporting empirical research has been conducted and statements can be made about the conditions under which a given strategy has been shown to have positive effects. Promising describes practices for which empirical support is not available but that display individual features that have been systematically investigated, are conceptually or theoretically sound, and have appealing applied characteristics. Best practice is a process, not a program; an approach, rather than a package (Neel et al., 1997). According to Sugai et al. (1997), any effort to improve the training of teachers and instruction of students should be carefully approached, based on promising or preferred practices, and evaluated fully before reaching any final conclusions about the outcomes.
Discipline strategies must incorporate the learning and behavior needs of each child with the desired outcomes if they are to correct maladaptive behaviors. As with their peers, these students need to be energetically engaged in enriching and meaningful work in classrooms that promote trust, respect, and successful outcomes. They require appropriately assigned tasks, clear expectations, frequent evaluations and feedback, and consistently enforced consequences within an orderly and secure atmosphere (Jackson, 1995). What makes any discipline strategy effective is how the school environment is structured to determine and deliver appropriate consequences.
One practice that has proven to be effective in reducing school discipline problems is the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports system. Sprague et al. (1999) developed this school-wide intervention model, which they based on a school’s ability to assess its current safety and behavior support status, by building a three-tiered discipline system of interventions – universal (school-wide), selected (for at-risk students), and targeted (for high-risk students). This approach employs procedures that fit the specific needs of the school rather than forcing the school to use a single strategy to solve all problems. The system uses office referral data to help assess, monitor, and plan interventions, and it has been proven effective in many schools and districts in the United States and Canada. Critical elements of effective interventions for students with behavior problems include those types of interventions used in the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports system:
Universal strategies: 85% to 90% of all students respond appropriately to the school-wide discipline system when the following are provided: social skill instruction; positive, proactive, discipline techniques; teaching and modeling of behavior expectations; active supervision; positive reinforcement systems; and firm, fair, and corrective consequences.
Selected strategies: 7% to 10% of students will respond better to classroom and small-group strategies that include intensive social skill instruction, self-management programs, adult mentors, and increased academic support.
Targeted or intensive strategies: 3% to 5% of students will require individualized interventions based on functional behavioral assessments such as intensive social skill instruction, individual behavior management plans, parent collaboration, and additional service providers.
The important message is that a continuum of behavior supports comprising differentiated levels of intervention is needed. The intensity of the intervention must match the intensity of the problem behavior and the complexity of the context in which the behavior most frequently occurs (Sprague et al., 1999). Data on the effectiveness of the behavior supports and the consequences provided must be gathered and analyzed. Without an analysis, it is more difficult to identify common problems and to select appropriate intervention strategies. Tracking individual student behavior patterns over time is a good way to identify students in need of additional assistance before their problems increase.
School staff members, in conjunction with parents and under the leadership of the principal, need to identify appropriate consequences to be used in response to disruptive behaviors. Effective discipline should be a matter of learning, so consequences should be selected on the basis of “What we need to teach the student” rather than “Is this severe enough to punish?” Punishment designed to inflict physical or emotional pain may result in temporary compliance with school rules, but it also frequently engenders hostility, resentment, alienation, and even revenge on the student’s part (Alberta Learning, 1999). Effective consequencei focui on teaching social responsibility and the development of alternative behaviors. Consequences should be developed to include an instructional component that can be measured over time to ensure their effectiveness.
Alberta’s Safe and Caring Schools Initiative recommends the following consequences for use by school officials:
Verbal warning – a reminder that a behavior is inappropriate; an alternate strategy for future use is agreed upon.
Verbal reprimand – a more serious verbal reminder with further consequences outlined in relation to mutually agreed-upon alternative strategies.
Minor detention “loss of noon hour/recess privilege coupled with a small work assignment related to the effects of the inappropriate behavior on others.
Major detention – detention after school or over the noon hour for one or more days, loss of free-time privilege for one or more occasions, and a larger work assignment related to developing more effective alternative strategies.
Phone call home – used in conjunction with most consequences to ensure that parents are informed and involved.
Formal interview with student – a scheduled private meeting to discuss issues, with notes taken. This may involve initiating counseling.
Relocation – student temporarily assigned to a supervised location to complete specific course assignments.
Formal removal – removal from the classroom to another supervised area, with readmittance based on specific written conditions and a specified time frame.
Community program – involvement of the student in an appropriate community service program.
Assignment of restitution – yard clean up; graffiti removal; damaged property painted, repaired, or replaced, and so forth, for any property damaged resulting from student behavior.
Interview with parents – interviews should occur at many stages to ensure two-way communication; written notes may be important to document effectiveness of strategies used; possible strategies can be shared with parents and caregivers.
Directed counseling – student is required to learn anger/behavior management strategies and to develop a behavior plan with a designated person or behavior support team.
Student contract – signed agreement regarding behavior, work habits, attendance, or other areas needing remediation, with strategies and ongoing evaluation included.
Removal of privileges – student is ineligible for extracurricular groups, field trips, and so forth until behavior shows consistent improvement.
In-school suspension – student does all required work in a supervised area away from other students.
Suspension from school – temporary removal of student from course, program, classroom, school bus, or school property for a specified period not exceeding 10 days; parents are notified, and a meeting is held to conduct functional assessment; terms for appropriate behavior and/or contract developed upon readmittance.
Expulsion to an alternative program – student loses privilege of attending school but is required to participate in another program provided by the school district, subject to terms of reenrollment agreed upon by the student, parents, and school district.
Similar to students with disabilities, students with behavior problems face significant barriers to success in school, home, and community environments. This reinforces the need for a quality system of skill development and support for these students and for educators and family members. Programs and practices designed to achieve skill development and provide professional support must be empirically tested and evaluated, and the results should be used to move the program from a good idea to promising practice to best practice. Educators at all levels need to make certain that meaningful investments are made to sustain quality research that is designed to foster innovation, identify effective and efficient methods, and sustain what works (Sugai et al., 1997).
Alternatives to suspension exist and must be used.
Any form of suspension should be based on the student’s best educational
interests, conducted in a manner that teaches the student more
appropriate behaviors, supported by empirical research, and used as a
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Ross-Epp, J. (1996). Schools” complicity and sources of violence. In J. Ross-Epp and A. M. Watkinson (Eds.), Systemic violence: How schools hurt children (pp. 123). London: Falmer Press.
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This feature: Sautner, B. (2001). Rethinking the effectiveness of suspensions. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9, 4. pp. 210-214.