Monday, October 18, 2021

With suspensions off-limits, students rule the roost


Groundbreaking reporting by the Baltimore Sun this morning gives us a glimpse of what happens in urban schools when the Maryland State Board of Education tells districts not to suspend students as often and throws out some “zero-tolerance” policies: a fighting epidemic where students cause teachers to suffer and the workers’ comp claims against the government to increase.

An everyday scene can escalate quickly. (iStockPhoto)

“[Employee] alleges [she] attempted to contact the student’s mother and he punched her right cheek and scratched her right arm and elbow,” the Sun quoted one claim as reading.

The state board implied that suspending students should occur as a last resort, and students have noticed: “They’re not stupid; they know exactly what’s going on,” one para-educator who had collected several thousands of dollars in workers’ compensation claims, was quoted as saying. “You tell them you’re going to call the principal, and they laugh at you.”

Workers’ compensation claims are highest in Baltimore City, but nearby counties have not escaped an increase in claims resulting from altercations with students, the Sun reported.

How teachers perceive misbehavior

Teachers deal with classroom misbehavior on a regular basis, as most people would suspect. They must decide whether to admonish students or refer them to an administrator in every case. In the past, being referred to an administrator has often resulted in more severe consequences, such as a suspension, but the new rules have changed that to a degree.

Because kids’ test scores are higher when they spend more days in a classroom, the state board has instructed principals in Maryland to refer students for out-of-school suspensions as a last resort, thus keeping them in a classroom for a greater number of days, leading presumably to an increase in their test scores. This puts the burden on teachers to respond to increasingly violent disruptions in the classroom on their own.

In understanding classroom management, labeling and social reproduction theories come into play, as highlighted in research by Cynthia Glass of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Kentucky State University, Frankfort. The choice of punishment for a given offense depends, to a large extent, on “the teachers’ and administrators’ perception of whether the student demonstrates the acquisition and possession of cultural capital,” she writes in her 2013 study. In lay terms, does the teacher know the student as a troublemaker?

As Ms Glass points out in her paper, published in the peer-reviewed Urban Review, misbehavior and the decisions teachers make to deal with it give us a chicken-and-egg question. It’s not clear whether students misbehave in response to being punished and losing cultural capital or a teacher decides on a course of action in response to nothing other than his or her perception of a given student’s status as a troublemaker, a status any punishment given may have supported.

Here’s how it works, according to Ms Glass’s research: Schools tend to give harsher punishments for the same offense to kids they perceive as bigger troublemakers. Then, kids who get punished more harshly are perceived as bigger troublemakers. It works the other way, too, resulting in the goody-too-shoes syndrome, where kids who are not perceived as troublemakers often get away with offenses for which troublemakers would be punished.

But not punishing students may have the unintended consequence of elevating the level of misbehavior. One third grader in the Sun article, who wasn’t punished for injuring a teacher, continued to taunt her upon her return and bragged about being the kid who took her out.

In that case, we’ll never know whether punishing him would have made him a bigger troublemaker and resulted in more significant injuries to teachers or other students. But we do see in his actions a tacit acknowledgment that he is invincible and can take teachers out at will.

Given the need for academic achievement on the part of all students and the associated elimination of disruptions to the teaching process, along with the financial need for the school to reduce workers’ compensation payouts, we acknowledge the crack investigative journalism on the part of Erica Green, Scott Calvert, and Luke Broadwater of the Baltimore Sun and call on the state board to revisit this policy once again.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


  1. Update, Feb 16:

    An op-ed piece in the New York Times says that ending suspensions, as has happened in Baltimore and other cities, improves graduation rates and that too many African-American students are suspended out of school across the country for minor and nonviolent offenses, sometimes even for talking back.

    Robert K Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment, and Kenneth H Zimmerman, director of United States programs for the Open Society Foundations, write:

    “The result of these reforms has been a dramatic reduction in total suspensions in Baltimore schools (8,620 in 2012-13, down from 16,739 in 2006-7). Dropout rates for African-American boys decreased by 59 percent; graduation rates for that group increased by 16 percent.

    “Improving school climates lessens the need for suspensions and expulsions and creates an atmosphere more conducive to learning. Education, law-enforcement and government leaders should follow the example of Richmond, Calif., Baltimore and other cities, like Denver, where the public schools and the police department negotiated an agreement defining what police officers in schools can and can’t do, and Los Angeles, which has banned suspensions for “willful defiance.” They should look to groups like the Chicago Teachers Union, which has consistently pushed for positive alternatives to overly harsh discipline policies.

    “Ultimately, full-scale change requires giving teachers the tools and resources to effectively manage their classrooms. It also means ensuring that students are not victims of the kind of stereotyping or racial bias that results in unfair punishments. As a nation, we need to embrace the reforms, both large and small, that keep students in school learning rather than out of school misbehaving.”

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