YOU'VE probably heard the story by now. A middle school principal in Oklahoma City suspended nearly 100 students during a three-day crackdown on tardiness. When four students tried to return to school before serving out the suspension, they were arrested for trespassing. Within a week, the principal submitted her resignation.
The school district and the principal got plenty of “atta boys” for what some viewed as a necessary step in disciplining unruly students. We'd certainly agree discipline was in order for students who are repeatedly late for class without a valid excuse. We're not as enthusiastic about the idea of arresting students for trespassing because they wanted to come to school.
It's easy to armchair quarterback this situation, and there are as many questions as answers. Were the students at Jefferson Middle School late to school every morning? Or was the issue more that they were loitering in the hallway? Is April the earliest the school's administration decided to get serious about tardiness? What other disciplinary tactics were in place to deal with chronically tardy students before asking them to leave school? Could the suspended students' early return have been dealt with as a school disciplinary matter rather than a criminal one?
Suspending students from school should be a last resort. That's especially true in Oklahoma City, where a high poverty rate and all of its associated ills means children will spend the day at home or on the streets unsupervised and possibly without food. School is their safe place, even when they act out. Calling in the police should be seen as an even more drastic step used when all other alternatives have failed and when safety is an issue. Remember, Jefferson is a middle school.
Many teachers cite student discipline — or the lack thereof — as a tremendous challenge. A quick glimpse into the disciplinary statistics of Oklahoma City Public Schools bears that out. The district's most recent statistical profile shows Jefferson issued 738 out-of-school suspensions last school year. The school's enrollment hovered around 1,000. The report doesn't reflect how many days out of school the suspensions represented.
Jefferson was hardly alone. Jackson Middle School had about 500 students and issued 541 out-of-school suspensions. The school also reported 407 in-school suspensions.
The problem isn't just at middle schools. Parks Elementary had 225 out-of-school suspensions among its roughly 400 students. High schools also reported plenty of suspensions. (Statistical reports for each school are available on the district's website at www.okcps.org.)
We're not suggesting student discipline is an easy issue or that the problem is unique to Oklahoma City. In a report earlier this month, the National School Boards Association called out-of-school suspension numbers a crisis and one of the most important barriers to improved student achievement.
“School disciplinary measures should not be used to exclude students from school or otherwise deprive them of an education, and should be used as a last resort in schools in order to preserve the safety of students and staff,” said Thomas Gentzel, the association's executive director. The NSBA issued a guide for school board members to use in crafting more comprehensive and effective student discipline policies. Perhaps Oklahoma City School Board members should read it.
There's a delicate balance between suspending kids to preserve the learning environment and recognizing that suspended students are missing the instructional time and structure they need. And if suspensions aren't improving behavior, do they do more harm than good, since suspensions are correlated to higher dropout rates?
For the sake of teachers and all students, this is an issue in need of a productive discussion.