5 Action Steps For Reducing Suspensions and Creating Safer Schools - Costs of Suspensions Part 2

November 26 2013


  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters
  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters

In Part 1 of our “The Costs of Suspensions” series, we looked at the rising use of out-of-school suspensions in districts all across the country. Establishing higher control procedures, instituting “zero tolerance” policies and increasing student suspensions has been a means to combatting relational aggression, violence and other disruptions in the school environment. But this “outside-in” approach is costing dearly.

Many educators today are paying more attention to the suspensions research and studies and are searching for alternatives to addressing student discipline issues. In this article, we offer 5 actions you can take to reduce suspensions in your school.

What these five actions have in common is that they’re all are based on an “inside-out” approach. At its core, the inside-out approach focuses on promoting the interpersonal dynamics among the people inside the schools as the fundamental way to improve safety, reduce discipline issues and strengthen school climate.

The 5 Actions

1) Build and strengthen relationships – Forward thinking administrators are beginning to place more emphasis on the power and importance of relationships as a driver for creating safer schools and a positive school climate. Nurturing relationships has a very clear “return on investment” by; creating a higher degree of familiarity with young people, in turn that promotes trust, which increases connection. And increased connection has people more invested in looking out for each other. A commitment to relationships is “formula” for greater school safety.

There are many ways to help teachers, staff, parents and students become more familiar with one another. Here are a few examples:

  • Create regular opportunities for students, staff, parents, families and your community to know one another better. These can be simple, informal coffee times before school or early evening “teas” for parents to drop-in on their way home;
  • Include all the key stakeholders (students, parents, community members, teachers and principals) whenever your district undertakes the process of developing and revising school discipline policies;
  • Offer on-line forums or brief editorial opportunities for personal ‘get-to-know-me story sharing’ (it’s easier to maintain positive personal regard and empathy for a person when you know the details of their background and the circumstances of their life); and,
  • Provide on-going training and support to staff around positive forms of discipline and in ways to be more ‘hall-friendly’, which means that a concerted effort is made to know and greet each child by name and face both in and out of the classroom.

2) Implement restorative justice practices – As defined by the National School Board Association (NSBA), Restorative Justice is both a philosophy of discipline, and an approach, that moves away from punishment toward restoring a sense of harmony and well-being for all those affected by a hurtful act. The restorative approach can be challenging at first since it defies deeply-held notions about power and control and the urge to punish a student for having misbehaved. Punitive responses to disciplinary incidents can cause more harm than good, create resentments and do little to repair relationships. They can also damage the self-esteem of the ‘wrong-doer’ leaving them feeling alienated, often resulting in withdrawal or retribution.

Restorative Justice is based on a view of resilience in children and youth and their capability to solve problems, as opposed to the youth themselves being considered the problems that adults must fix. Restorative Justice practices can give students a chance to tell their side of the story, to understand and empathize with the person who was wronged, to reflect on and learn from their mistakes, to develop new self-regulation tools to prevent incidents from happening again in the future and to move on and feel better about themselves.

Restorative Justice Practices may not completely eliminate suspensions but research shows that suspensions are reduced significantly. A couple of examples of restorative practices that schools are using successfully are:

  • Peer / Teen courts;
  • Community service projects;
  • Making personal amends to the hurt parties with mediation;
  • Researching and writing a paper on restorative justice;
  • Restorative circles; and,
  • Peer mentoring.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to implement restorative justice practices at your school, visit the Restorative Justice website.

We also like Edutopia’s comprehensive take on this subject.

3) Empower Your Students – One of the key ingredients in reducing suspensions lies in helping students become part of the solution instead of being perceived as, or seeing themselves as, the problem. Students comprise about 90% of the school population as well making up 90% of those who are the targets of relational aggression, so it only makes sense that recruiting their cooperation in improving the school climate will impact them most directly.

For too many, the current norm in our country, is to be a bystander – watching passively as bullying, cyber-bullying and other forms of mean behavior take place. Silence is a form of consent, so often the aggressors are emboldened by the lack of intervention. Therefore, the initial focus of student training necessarily needs to be on waking up their courage to stand up and speak up in ways that are safe and effective.

Students see, hear, and know things adults don’t, can intervene in ways adults can’t and are often on the scene of an incident before an adult. And, because peer pressure is probably the most force in forming student behavior, teaching them how to model positive relational behaviors is the best way to infuse the school culture with desirable conduct. 

The most effective bystander-empowerment program in the country is the Safe School Ambassadors program (SSA), which empowers student bystanders de-fuse, de-escalate and prevent bullying-related incidents with their peers. Since 2000, this evidence-based model has equipped over 60,000 4-12th grade students in 1300 schools in 32 states, Canada, Guam and Puerto Rico with the communication skills and confidence to prevent and stop emotional and physical bullying, improve school climate, and subsequently, reduce suspendable offences.

The key to the program’s efficacy is that it identifies, engages and equips the socially-influential leaders of a school’s diverse cliques. These “Alpha” leaders are carefully identified through student and staff surveys. They are selected based upon specific criteria, such as: strong position and influence in their peer group, good communication skills, and a history of standing up for friends. They participate in a two-day interactive training along with several adults who serve as program mentors.

The training gives student Ambassadors the motivation and skills to resolve conflicts, defuse incidents, and support isolated and excluded students. When other students observe the interventions of Ambassadors, they themselves are motivated to take action and speak up; ultimately turning bystanders into “upstanders”. This shift creates a “ripple effect” that over time results in a “tipping point” that changes the schools’ social norm from "it's cool to be cruel" to "it's right to speak up".

Throughout the school year, small group meetings of Ambassadors are held every few weeks. These meetings, led by the adult mentors, provide time for strengthening skills, support data collection and analysis of Ambassador interventions, and help sustain student and adult commitment to the program.

4) Review and improve your school policies – It’s critical that you regularly review and adjust school policies so they reflect any relevant changes in state law and are focused upon reducing suspensions for minor infractions, and promoting alternatives such as bullying prevention, school climate and restorative justice practices. Here are a few examples from states that have revised their suspensions policies:

Connecticut: H.B. 7350
Requires student suspensions to automatically be in-school suspensions rather than out-of-school suspensions unless it is determined that the student poses “such danger to people or property, or causes such a disruption of the educational process”. Effective: 2008

California: A.B. 1729
Requires that administrators in most cases use suspensions only after alternative disciplinary practices fail to correct student misbehavior. The law expands those alternatives to include community service, restorative justice programs and positive behavior incentives. Effective: 2013

Florida: SB 1540
Discourages schools from arresting students for minor offenses such as classroom disruption and fighting. Encourages schools to use alternatives to expulsion and referral to law enforcement such as restorative justice. Requires schools to take the particular circumstances of the student’s misconduct into account before issuing punishment. Responds to the harsh truth of racial disparities in discipline in Florida by stating that zero tolerance policies must apply equally to all races; and requires districts to rewrite their discipline codes and change their zero tolerance policies. Effective: 2009

To view more examples of school policies, we recommend the “Stopping Out-of-School Suspensions; A Guide for State Policy” PDF

5) Social norms change – By guiding and changing behavior, not exclusively through rules and policies, but rather through social norms development of what is acceptable, positive behaviors are reinforced. This can include supporting your staff, student and community with:

  • Bullying prevention and intervention training;
  • The promotion of positive behavioral support standards;
  • Social and emotional learning

Where do we start? One of the best things to do is to step back and take a 10,000 foot view of your district, school and the metrics around discipline data. Taking the time to bring together key stakeholders to assess and align your values, mission and vision may feel like a burden at first, but it’s a challenge worth its weight in gold. When you have all those aspects in alignment and your policies and practices are being implemented congruently, everything works more effectively, and suspensions are bound to decrease.

At the end of the day, we have the knowledge and evidence to significantly reduce the number of suspensions, recover valuable time and money and create safer schools, all by following the 5 Action Steps above. For more information, contact us at Community Matters.

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