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Sunday / October 22

What is the Magic Behind 3 to 5 Days of Suspension?

We understand behavior challenges in schools are inevitable. Students are going to make mistakes. We also know that students repeatedly suspended are four times more likely to drop out of high school, enter the juvenile justice system, or go on welfare. Yet educators continue to make the decision to suspend students, forever altering their life pathway. We can decide to help change student behavior through the use of alternative methods of discipline, or continue implementing broken practices such as suspension. Interestingly enough, we hear educators speak of the importance of equity and helping ALL students, but do we see this importance reflected when it comes to student behavior?

What is constantly baffling is the concept that a 3 to 5 day suspension is going to magically change a student’s behavior. So we ask, what is it that goes into the decision to send a student home on the popular 3 to 5 day suspension that will magically change a student’s behavior once they return to school on that 4th, 5th, or 6th day? The only magic is that a student disappears with a “Poof, you are gone” mindset toward those who misbehave. Research clearly shows that the behaviors will remain and likely repeat, and suspensions are not effective in changing student behavior. Here are five reasons why there is nothing magical about a 3 to 5 day suspension…well, not for the student anyway.

  1. Safety: We hear a lot that a 3 to 5 day suspension will make the campus safer having that student gone. However, it is hard to understand how 3 to 5 days away from the educational environment will ensure the campus is safer when a student returns. Will a bully stop being a bully after spending five days at home? Research has demonstrated that schools with higher rates of out-of-school suspension are not safer for students or faculty. Additionally, the behavior will likely repeat. To ensure a safer school environment, the school must control and address the situation by using alternatives to teach and change behavior, thus preventing these behaviors from repeating.
  1. Time for the adults: We also hear that the adults need a break from the student to figure out next steps. Again, we are not sure why 3 to 5 days is needed for a team to figure out what behavior interventions need to be provided for a student. This is typically used as a convenience for the adults more than anything. Would we stop a reading intervention for a student for 3 to 5 days while trying to figure out what supports to provide next? We suggest: if the behavior is serious enough for a 3 to 5 day suspension, an immediate game plan is needed to support and help the student learn from their misbehavior. The priority and focus should be on solutions and outcomes for the student, not the convenience of the adults.
  1. Let the parents address it: Another common response we hear to justify the need for a 3 to 5 day suspension is that the parents need to be inconvenienced with the student at home. As educators, it is our job to help students both academically AND social-emotionally. Would we send a student struggling in algebra home for 3 to 5 days so the parent could teach them algebra, thus relieving ourselves of that responsibility? We need to support students behaviorally with the same amount of focus and energy as we do academically. We understand the importance of partnering with parents to help with serious behavior issues; however, we do not feel simply putting it back on the parents alone will lead to a change in behavior. Consider this: during the suspension itself, students are often unsupervised. The lack of supervision increases the likelihood that the student will engage in further misbehavior during their exclusion from school. Additionally, once a school puts the responsibility on the parent, the collaborative relationship between the school and parent is broken. If parents feel the school’s only response is to send their child home by giving up on them, they will likely come to the defense of their child and refuse to work with the school.
  1. 3 to 5 days doesn’t change behavior: Up to fifty percent of students suspended are repeat offenders, which would indicate that suspensions do little to discourage misbehavior. Punishing students by excluding them from school will not deter future misbehavior, and could in fact increase it, making the overall educational environment less safe. Increasing the number of suspension days also does not work, although it continues to remain a common practice in schools and districts. We hear educators justify their suspension decisions with a mindset that increasing days after repeat behaviors prevent future misbehavior. If a student does not respond to the 3 day suspension, the student receives a 5 day suspension for the next offense. Then, if they do it again, the student will be recommended for a danger hearing and/or expulsion. If an educator wants to help a student change behavior, it will require much more effort than filling out a suspension form and sending a student home. It will require building relationships and working with the student so they know you care. The message an educator sends to a student by excluding him/her from school for 5 days is that they do not care enough to see them change their behavior.
  1. Not enough resources or personnel: Often we hear: “We had to suspend the student because there are not enough resources or personnel to address or supervise their behavior on campus.” We would ask, Do additional resources or personnel typically appear on your campus once the student returns from their 3 to 5 day suspension? If so, you’ve just incentivized suspension. In nearly all cases, the answer is no. We suggest educators honestly look at the systems they have created and evaluate why such exclusionary practices are needed as the response to changing behavior. Also, we ask if repeatedly suspending students actually changes behavior or if it is the default consequence for putting a Band-Aid on larger systemic issues? In our experiences, even with added personnel to support your systems, if your beliefs about discipline don’t change, neither will the behaviors of the students. You will usually just end up having another adult brought into a toxic discipline system who will become an extension of the beliefs the leaders are modeling. It’s the administrators’ attitude toward the disciplinary process that influences the rates of suspension.

To conclude, there is nothing magical about a 3 to 5 day suspension that changes behavior; so challenge yourself to stop using that as your response and instead use those days to create effective alternative discipline. Use Don’t Suspend Me as a guide to help your team develop a new mindset and beliefs about discipline, rather than a false illusion that sending a student home for 3 to 5 days helps the student (or your school) in any way.

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Written by

Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is an Educational Consultant and an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Fresno State University. She is also an educational consultant working with several school districts and county offices in California on designing and implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts that work. She currently trains approximately 300 schools on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Champion Model System. She is the co-author of The PBIS Tier One Handbook. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jess_hannigan.

Dr. John Hannigan holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, Master’s in Educational Leadership, and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno. He is currently in his seventh year as principal of Ronald W. Reagan Elementary in Sanger Unified School District, where under his leadership has earned California State Distinguished School, California Title I Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap by the California Department of Education; a 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 California Honor Roll school by California Business for Educational Excellence; a 10 out of 10 similar school statewide ranking; 2008, 2010, 2012 winner of the Bonner Award for Character Education; 2013 Silver Level Model School recognition, and 2014 and 2015 Gold Level Model School recognition from Fresno County Office of Education for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. He also serves on Dr. Paul Beare’s, Dean of California State University, Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, Advisory Council. Dr. Hannigan resides in Fresno, California, with his wife Jessica and daughters Rowan and Riley. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHannigan75.

John and Jessica are the authors of Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit.

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