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Compassionate School Policies

By June Naureckas, CEI Intern

Both in-school and out-of-school suspensions can lead to students dropping out and have life-long consequences on their economic success. Some school districts are finding alternative disciplinary actions that are less harmful to students and more effective at improving their behavior.

The Cost of Suspension

A 2016 study by the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that suspensions in 10th grade contributed to 67,000 additional dropouts nationwide by students who would otherwise graduate high school. The study’s authors believe that if they had collected data on middle school suspensions as well, these extra dropouts would be even more common.

The study found that students who are suspended, even once, often fail to return to school when their suspensions are over. This trend leads to an increased dropout rate, reduces lifetime employability, and increases costs to taxpayers in the form of healthcare and criminal justice expenses.

Suspensions disproportionately target black students; the UCLA study suggests that reducing this discipline gap would make suspensions more fair and equitable while also improving the United State’s fiscal well-being.

Restorative Justice: A More Constructive Approach

Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, California has replaced most suspensions with “harm circles.” If a student conflict escalates to violence, teachers bring in both students and the parents of both students to have a constructive discussion about what happened, why it happened, and what the appropriate punishment would be.

A rising trend in city school districts across the country, “Restorative Justice” approaches student altercations as an opportunity for understanding. Teachers assign community service, public apologies, and group discussions of how a conflict could have been resolved. The Oakland Unified School District has cut suspensions in half at schools which practice restorative justice. Chronic absences have been reduced, while graduation rates are on the rise.

Intended to reduce disproportionate punishment of black students, restorative justice works best when both teachers and students commit to the practice. According to the program director, sixth graders are initially skeptical of restorative justice, but seventh graders appreciated the program after a year at Edna Brewer. They believe it fosters a more communicative, less aggressive atmosphere among the student body, and some seventh and eighth graders even sign up to be student leaders.

Lasting resistance to the program comes from faculty, not students. Some teachers – including a few at Edna Brewer – believe that students will avoid punishment by pretending to be sorry for their misbehavior, while others feel unprepared to lead the circles or have emotionally open conversations with their students.

The concept and practice of restorative justice continue to evolve as more school districts begin similar programs.

What If A Suspension Is Unavoidable?

Like in Oakland, the Detroit school board encourages schools to avoid both in-school and out-of-school suspension until after they’ve attempted less punitive means of behavioral improvement, such as talking to a student’s parents. When suspensions do happen, Detroit has an additional barrier to dropping out: a school campus specifically for suspended students.

Open at the start of the 2018 school year, Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy provides structured, on-campus education when students are suspended. An alternative school provides continuity, limits time spent out of school, and prevents suspended students from leaving school permanently and dropping out.

The alternative academy also has a team of behavioral experts, including an attendance agent, a guidance counsellor, and a social worker. These staff members target the non-academic factors which contribute to misbehavior and suspensions.

Like a restorative justice program, an alternative school needs funding and district-wide coordination to become a reality. Neither system can be fully implemented by a single school, but reducing discipline gaps and the harm caused by suspensions is a worthwhile goal for any teacher or administrator.


Rumberger, R. M., & Losen, D. J. (2016, June 1). The high cost of harsh discipline and its disparate impact.


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