Greg Marshall: Curbing the need to suspend


Published: Monday, July 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 8:02 p.m.

As a retired teacher with 35 years experience, I commend Alachua County School Board Chairwoman Eileen Roy's efforts to curb the use of suspension as punishment in public schools.

In most school districts, "internal suspension" (the student remains at school, getting assignments from his or her teachers while separated from their classmates) is a commonly used practice to remove a chronically disruptive child from the classroom while keeping them at school. "External suspension" is still a necessary option in some cases — when drugs, weapons, or acute violence, for example, become part of the equation.

The missing pieces of the discipline puzzle that Roy is seeking are, very simply, professional intervention and one-on-one counseling. They are expensive and time-consuming, to be sure. Students living in an environment of generational poverty are the largest segment of our at-risk school population, and pose some significant challenges to our schools. They are challenges for which there are few resources and funding.

In her book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," Ruby Payne explains the "hidden rules" (the unspoken understandings necessary for one to exist in a social group) of those living in poverty, the middle class and the wealthy, and how they manifest in a person's behavior.

Very often, students of poverty don't know the hidden rules of the middle class — the system under which our schools are designed. Unless we as educators, counselors and school psychologists clearly explain these rules in a non-threatening, personal fashion, these students are destined to chronically run afoul of our schools' expectations of them.

An example of these hidden rules is how differently the middle class and those in poverty view the concept of punishment, according to Payne. The middle class expectation is that punishment will modify behavior, while those in poverty see punishment as penance — payment for getting caught. Misbehavior becomes a game of "Can I get away with it?" with no thought of changing the conduct.

A final thought: Many of these at-risk students have grown up with a mistrust and disrespect of all adults — with reason. Observations of abusive adult/adult interactions (social learning) and the endurance of physical and sexual abuses (often coupled with emotional and nutritional deprivation) all help create the distrust and disrespect that these students exhibit toward all adults and figures of authority.

Outside of school, many of these students answer to no one and are left, to a large extent, to raise themselves. When placed in the school environment, they (understandably) resent becoming subservient to any authority.

Suspending such a child only reinforces this mistrust. Without professional intervention (by one who is trained in the field), the child's misbehavior often continues (or escalates) until he or she is expelled or simply drops out of school.

I truly hope that Roy's workshop will provide insight and real-world strategies for interrupting the discipline cycle and curbing the need for suspensions. I would humbly recommend that she and the other participants read Payne's book to this end.

Greg Marshall lives in Starke.

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