Workshop examines school suspensions


Published: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 3:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 3:02 p.m.

School principals, School Board members, police and community members gathered last Thursday to discuss alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.

Although the numbers have improved slightly over the years, some schools are still recording more than 100 suspensions every year, said Alachua County School Board chairwoman Eileen Roy.

Even one out-of-school suspension increases a student's chance of dropping out by 35 percent, Roy said.

"When we suspend students, we are undermining our own efforts to keep students in school until they graduate," she told the group of about 50 people who participated in the discussion.

Kathy Black, director of exceptional student education for Alachua County Schools, said last year, 656 middle school students and 654 high school students received out-of-school suspensions from Alachua County public schools.

The numbers reflect some patterns.

Data show that nearly twice as many boys are suspended as girls and black students are suspended nearly three times more than white students, Black said.

Of the number of students who are suspended, 85 percent of middle schoolers and 75 percent of high schoolers qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The average length of an out-of-school suspension for Alachua County middle and high school students is three days. The maximum is 10 days, but that punishment is reserved for the worst offenses: drugs, weapons or assaulting school employees.

The district already has measures in place to prevent and mitigate suspensions, as well as suspension alternatives such as in-school and family-based counseling, behavior improvement plans and in-school suspension.

But it's not enough to completely keep students from being sent home from school, which, Roy said, is the worst thing you can do for a child. If children are left home alone while parents work or are otherwise occupied, the risk that child will get in trouble with the law while already out on suspension is greater.

"I think we can improve what we do," Roy said.

One alternative to suspension is restorative justice, said Jeffrey Weisberg, director of programs and outreach for the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.

Modern American society uses a system of criminal justice that focuses on punishing offenders, Weisberg said.

Restorative justice takes into account reasons why the offender might be acting out and shifts the emphasis from blame and punishment to repairing the harm done to the victim.

"Forgiveness may be an outcome, but it's not the aim," Weisberg said.

The approach can be used to mitigate a variety of bad behaviors, from truancy and disruptiveness to graffiti, theft and bullying.

Weisberg said it also promotes the belief that people are worth more than the worst thing they've ever done. Punishment for bad behavior creates shame, which can hinder learning and create more bad behavior in turn.

Instead, the restorative justice approach can empower students to atone for their bad behavior, restore self-esteem and change the atmosphere of a school, Weisberg said.

Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County branch NAACP, expressed support for integrating restorative justice into schools, but stressed that the district needs to focus on the high ratio of black students and male students who get suspended.

In particular, she said, there needs to be a task force to figure out how to keep these students from getting arrested and incarcerated later on.

Gainesville City Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls agreed, adding that school deans should come to a consensus on what kind of behavior qualifies a student for suspension, so unnecessary suspensions can be curtailed.

"It's going to be imperative that we have some alternatives to arrest in addition to suspension," said Hinson-Rawls, a retired school principal.

Roy said the next step is to create a committee to help school administrators get the right resources for providing alternatives to suspension.

Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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