Many questions linger over use of school suspensions in Oklahoma City

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: April 30, 2013
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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.

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