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A Cure Worse than the Disease: Reforming Virginia’s Suspension and Expulsion System

By Neal Modi | January 17, 2012 | No Comments

We need to address our schools’ current policy on suspension and expulsion. Across the Commonwealth, thousands of students are being suspended under zero tolerance policies for minor transgressions. In fact, the most cited reasons for suspension or expulsion in Virginia’s schools during 2009-2010 were defiance, classroom disruption, making obscene or inappropriate gestures, language, and disrespect. Together, they made up over half of all incidents reported and charged.

While schools certainly need discretion to punish certain misbehaviors, the large number of suspended or expelled students equates not just to remediation, but to a broader unintended social consequence.  In fact, students who must miss class, research indicates, drag the rest of their class and school with them.

As the Commonwealth Institute found in a recent study, Virginia’s high schools that use suspensions most frequently have larger dropout rates. When social benefits are included, each suspension can cost the Commonwealth up to $582,000, even when controlling for demographics and attitudes.

Put simply, there is little evidence that removing children from school will improve their behavior or even improve the school or Commonwealth. Thus, without adequate support for students who are suspended or expelled, educators and administrators are working against the system. For this reason, zero tolerance policies and school districts’ enforcement of them need a second, closer look.

But we should also be looking at alternatives.  The Virginia Department of Education (DOE) and the General Assembly should increase funding to investigate new and more effective policies, such as peer-to-peer mediation and conflict resolution, individual counseling, and effective classroom management by teachers, deserve attention. Likewise, increased underwriting for the state’s Effective School-wide Discipline Program, now employed in 46 of the state’s 132 school divisions, may be helpful. Under this program, one report has found, the number of disciplinary referrals, in-school and out-of-school suspensions has reduced while instructional time has been saved.

The Governor has rightly invested money in K-12 education, yet we also need to look inward. Our state courts have clearly found that education is a fundamental right. Our schools’ disciplinary policies, while administered and defined on a local level, demand clarification, reform and assistance from our state government. State-wide initiatives to reform these disciplinary policies can reduce the dropout rate, make schools more positive, and ensure that teachers and administrators can stay on-task.

At a minimum, our state, while ensuring that the most number of students can move onto higher education, must ensure that all students are afforded educational services, regardless of whether they are suspended or expelled. While punishing disobedience is generally the right course, writ large, we must make sure that our cure is not worse than the disease.

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