As suspensions mount, schools have homework to do

Homeward bound: Out-of-school suspensions should be a last resort -- and schools must make sure the homebound can academically pace their classmates.
By HARRY AURORA //

One of the most extreme ways to discipline a student is the out-of-school suspension – but this punishment only bandages a problem, without actually fixing it.

With little to no academic guidance at home, suspended students often suffer long-term negative consequences. Suspensions should only be used as a last resort – and if it’s absolutely necessary, schools should take steps to ensure that students are learning from their mistakes, and learning in general, while they’re absent.

While out-of-school suspension can emphasize the gravity of a student’s offense, it also begs two questions: What access to lessons do suspended students have when they aren’t in class? And how does suspension teach students appropriate behavior?

Studies show that out-of-school suspension does little to improve a student’s attitude, while making him or her more likely to fall behind academically. Just one out-of-school suspension can have a snowball effect, affecting graduation rates and creating problems into adulthood.

The research is clear. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a long-term study run by the University of North Carolina Population Center, began following students enrolled in middle and high school during the 1994-95 school year. Among the dataset, researcher Janet Rosenbaum identified 480 students who were suspended during that first year.

Master of suspense: Out-of-school suspensions can be risky, warns Harry Aurora.

The negative impacts of suspension were clear. Five years after their first suspension, the suspended students were 8 percent less likely to earn a high school diploma than peers of similar backgrounds who were not suspended – and 40 percent more likely to have been arrested.

Twelve years later, according to the study, they were 24 percent less likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree, 51 percent more likely to have been arrested at least twice and 23 percent more likely to have been in prison.

Research by the University of Virginia corroborated Rosenbaum’s findings, while adding higher rates of grade repetition to the litany of effects.

Out-of-school suspensions also disproportionately impact minority and lower-income students. Data on the 2015-16 school year released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed that white male students accounted for 25 percent of the total school enrollment in the United States and 24 percent of suspended students, while black male students accounted for 8 percent of total enrollment and 25 percent of suspended students.

There are two ways to curb the negative spiral. The first is to proactively create plans that use out-of-school suspension as a last resort. In 2012, some 19.6 percent of national public-school students in grades six through 12 were sent home, and out-of-school suspensions should not be so easily implemented.

The second is to provide easier access to education while students are serving their sentences.

Teachers should begin each school year by informing students how they’re expected to behave, and revisit and reinforce the guidelines throughout the year. By encouraging dialogue between teachers and students, minor issues can be resolved before they escalate.

In some cases, out-of-school suspensions may be appropriate, but a student cannot lose his or her access to education while away. Online teaching can help to mitigate learning gaps.

iTutor works with public school districts to offer homebound students access to state-certified teachers, helping them maintain connection to school and course materials, and will soon launch a “virtual suspension class” – an online course that will help keep suspended students accountable for their schoolwork.

Attendance will be taken and students will be encouraged to voice any emotional concerns about their indiscretions – both helping them keep up with their coursework and easing their transition back into the classroom.

Helping students stay in school is important to ensuring future success, but in cases where suspension is necessary, students will benefit greatly from alternate online education systems. Keeping them connected can only curtail the negative impacts of being out of school for an extended period.

Harry Aurora is the founder and CEO of Jericho-based digital-education innovator iTutor.