School suspension worsens core problems

There is a disconcerting irony in public schools’ practice of punishing unruly students by prohibiting them from coming to school for several days, both because the penalty quickly becomes a vacation for some students and because denying students some part of their education blocks the best escape route for students caught in troubled environments.

Many Minnesota schools are using a penalty once reserved for the most disruptive offenders as an excuse to dodge their responsibility to educate all the state’s children, even those who are hardly Wally or “the Beaver” and whose home lives are worlds removed from Sheriff Andy’s Mayberry.

Pennsylvania State University’s Brian Bumbarger sums up the issue succinctly. “We can kick the two bad apples out and focus on the 28 that are left, but those two we kick out today, they’re not going away,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “They’re the people we’ll (complain) about later draining our property taxes or sucking up public resources.”

Some Minnesota schools give up before some children finish kindergarten. State data shows nearly 1,800 kindergartners, first- and second-graders were suspended during the 2000-01 academic year. Published reports indicate these children were typically suspended for fighting, vandalism and sexual infractions, leading one to wonder how serious a fight or act of vandalism caused by someone barely strong enough to hit a tee ball could have been.

Even in an extreme case, such as the March 2001 incident in which a 5-year-old St. Paul student unwittingly brought to school the purse her grandfather used to store his pistol, suspension is inappropriate – although that kindergartner was suspended. Barring such students from school not only ignores the problems lurking at home but also punishes students for the very upbringing from which education could help them escape.

A similar truth applies to the disproportionately high numbers of minority students suspended. Race, unfortunately, is often a proxy for unstable or dangerous home and neighborhood environments, and school administrations that punish students by abandoning them to such circumstances have let their desire for safe, productive classrooms blind them to the full scope of their responsibilities as educators.

Schools cannot be social workers or the police, but they can be the candles in troubled students’ caves that motivate them to seek something better. Districts that attempt alternative schools or programs that combine intensive academic supervision with restorative justice for a student’s offenses deserve support.

Such programs are not easy. They require money, skilled staff, separate facilities, the dedication to continue helping students willing to be helped despite the failures of the few who are not, and the political will to stand firm against short-sighted taxpayers who believe the “bad kids” deserve what comes. But if this state is truly dedicated to its children and its schools, such programs are the best way to chisel into the complex iceberg of which school suspensions are only the most visible tip.