Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Suspend as a last resort

Thousands of children too young to understand right from wrong are being suspended from school.

A Washington Post analysis of data for the region's school system found that last school year more than 6,112 elementary students, from prekindergarten through grade five, were suspended or expelled for hitting, disrupting, disrespecting, fighting and other offenses. That includes 50 prekindergarteners, 433 kindergartners and 677 first-graders.

In the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, more than 3 million students are suspended at least once a year and more than 100,000 are expelled. In Chicago, out-of-school suspensions quadrupled to 93,212 between 2001 and 2007. In Pennsylvania, school-based arrests almost tripled between 1999 and 2006, to 12,918.

The reason for so much lost class time is strict disciplinary measures that began in the 1990s. They became stricter after April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School and killed 12 students and a teacher. School shootings have created an era of zero-tolerance policies in many schools.

But researchers question whether children in the early grades should ever be suspended. The goal should be teaching appropriate behavior. Still educators see suspension as necessary to remove students who cause a disruption in class and to send a strong message about conduct.

Prekindergarteners and those in early elementary classes don't understand suspension. Schools are sending home children who are struggling with social-emotional skills. They lose instruction time and fall behind in classes. No research indicates that suspensions improve a child's behavior or make schools safer.

The Maryland State Board of Education is considering proposals to end suspensions for nonviolent offenses and federal officials have started considering reforming guidelines.

Educators must carefully consider each case and look to other options — involving parents and counselors — before suspension. It should never be done lightly. But if teachers and principals have tried everything they can, and it is serious behavior, then they must be able to suspend children. We must support their efforts to keep violence out of schools.

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