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Why Suspending NY Students Doesn’t Help Them Learn

My experience is just like that of thousands of New York's young people.

Empty chairs in a classroom
DONGSEON KIM / Shutterstock
By: Jax Organizer

Every school year, more than two million students across the country lose tens of millions of hours of classroom time because they get suspended. The overuse of school suspensions causes students to fall behind, targets young people of color, and makes students more likely to drop out. So why do schools who claim to want to protect school safety continue to kick us out of class?

In 2018, when I was just a 10-year-old fifth grader, I was suspended from Exceed Charter School in New York City after my friend and I tried to help a classmate who was being attacked. The school didn’t see it that way and I was kicked out of class. During that time, I didn’t have access to my schoolwork, so I just sat at home, — I wasn’t learning a lesson, I was just prevented from learning.

In some ways I was lucky — I was only suspended for five days. Some students who are given lengthy suspensions can struggle to catch up, and many join the more than a million students who drop out of high school every year. Students who miss more than 20 days of school because of suspensions are much more likely to drop out, a shocking fact considering that in my home state of New York, students can be kicked out of class for up to 180 days.

Schools claim that students are suspended so often and for so long in order to keep schools safe. But if teachers and other school staff use harsh discipline before trying to get to the root of disruptive behavior, how are students supposed to learn from their mistakes?

Schools should be places where students are allowed to make mistakes and where we can learn from them, so they don’t happen again.

What I know for sure is that my suspension in fifth grade did not teach me anything positive. Instead, it made me view my teachers as enforcers, rather than people I could turn to for help. It made me distrustful of the adults who I had thought, up until then, were there to listen to and care for me.

We all deserve safe schools and access to learning, and there are ways to push our schools to consider new, better ways to discipline students. New York’s proposed plan, the Solutions Not Suspensions Act, would hold students accountable for their behavior while also offering support that recognizes that disruptive behavior is often the  result of personal hurt and emotional stressors. The bill would make schools use restorative approaches like having students share their feelings, get to the heart of what’s causing problems between students, and work together to deal with conflicts.

A key element of the bill is that it requires schools to reduce suspensions, it doesn’t just create guidelines that school districts are free to ignore if they want to. This is critical because when districts are given the choice of how to punish students, they often choose to give out harsh discipline.

It’s a blueprint that students across the country can use and adapt to reimagine how suspensions work in your own communities. We can make our schools better by creating a sense of community, cooperation, and trust both among students and between students and adults. Restorative programs are designed to go beyond punishment to help create the positive school climate we need to thrive at school.

Solutions Not Suspensions would also limit suspensions for students in Pre-K through 3rd grade so they could only be used for the most serious behavior. And the bill shortens the maximum length of suspension from 180 to 20 school days.

And, unlike what happened to me, the bill would require that students who are suspended receive academic instruction, and the opportunity to earn credit, complete assignments, and take exams.

Schools should be places where students are allowed to make mistakes and where we can learn from them, so they don’t happen again. With more than two million suspended every year, we should be fighting for the right to stay in class, while making our schools more welcoming, safer places to be.

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