Cherie Miller On Suspensions, Zero Tolerance and the Wood Shed

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When my husband Steve was in middle school he got caught one day sneaking off campus. The principal later called him to the office on the intercom. Punishment, a paddling, was in waiting and everyone knew it, so the students responded with an “ooooohh!”

This otherwise good student was suddenly famous. In one stroke of brilliance, and in one good spanking, he achieved what every other kid in his Georgia school sought — coolness — the very opposite of the school’s intent.

Gone, mostly, are the days of paddling — just as well, it didn’t seem to work anyway – replaced by more… prosaic punishments.

Nowadays, schools often use the dreaded in-and out-of-school suspensions. The question is, though, are they any more effective than a well- planed and wielded paddle?

Michael Thompson, the director of the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, apparently thinks not. He’s questioned the effectiveness of suspensions in his recent study entitled Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. He and other researchers looked into the discipline practices of school districts in Texas affecting over one million students and found the practice simply isn’t working.

As a “good” parent in the post-paddling world of education, I’ve always supported the disciplinary actions of the teachers and the assistant principals of the schools my boys attended, but I will admit there have been several cases that made me question the value of the punishments handed down.

A few examples:

  • One day in-school suspension: having a hole in his jeans, a violation of the school dress code
  • One day in-school: being late to school three times.
  • Saturday school: being late to school five times.
  • Three day in-school: not listening to school officials
  • Three day out-of-school suspension:  smoking on school property

All this, of course, is in praise of zero tolerance, an odd concept often applied in school settings.

Here again, we have to ask: Is it very effective? And here again, I have first-hand experience suggesting it is not.

One of our sons is highly ADD. He found the school environment overly stressful, a place where the learning environment was almost impossible to navigate.

When he received in-school suspension for some minor infraction or another, he was often relieved. This was a sanctuary where he could put soothing music on his headphones to block distractions and complete all of his assignments at his own pace. As a semi-permanent resident of In-School Suspension High, he was able to function as a successful student.

One incident especially has always caused me to question the effectiveness of using suspensions as a discipline tool. Our three high schoolers always struggled to meet the bus at 7:10 a.m. So one survival strategy they employed was to catch the bus on the way out of the subdivision, instead of the “assigned” bus stop nearer our house.

One Friday morning the bus driver instructed my sons they were not to use the second bus stop, but had to use the “assigned” one. Of course on Monday instead of missing the bus at the “assigned” stop, they arrived at the second. The bus driver wrote all three up for a three day in-school suspension for “not listening to a school official.” I was more than dismayed to hear they had been sentenced in-school suspension, instead of regular classes.

So I’m not surprised by the study of the Texas schools, that found nearly 60 percent of students in the state had committed infractions that netted them an in-school suspension with “…one in seven students facing such disciplinary measures at least 11 times.”

Additional troubling findings in the report were that these types of disciplinary actions were applied to minority students more than whites and that they tended to lower graduation rates.

My boys respected the authority of teachers and administrators while in high school, but often found the policies and application of discipline capricious and somewhat silly.

I’m sure that school administrators can figure out saner methods to accomplish their goals – without returning to the woodshed, of course — while not frustrating these students who are trying to just stay focused on grabbing that high school diploma on their way out the door.


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