Op-ed: For the good of a class, student suspensions are needed
Sometimes, for the good of the class, a student needs to be removed, writes guest columnist Dan Magill
Special to The Times
I HAVE taught for 12 years. In that time, I’ve discovered how strongly I desire all my students to succeed. Whenever they choose behaviors I know will inhibit, reduce, or destroy their ability to learn — or that of the other students in the class — I try to address it quickly.
Sometimes, for the good of the class, a student needs to be removed. Sometimes permanently. While I don’t think anyone disputes this, I am concerned about recent state Legislature efforts to push back on the suspensions of students.
Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5244, approved by the Senate last week, would reduce the number of days students can be excluded from school due to discipline.
Do those in favor of the bill understand how damaging just one incorrigible student can be to a classroom? I’m not arguing against this bill necessarily, only providing an informed perspective lawmakers would be wise not to ignore.
We must be careful about overemphasizing the needs of the few students who have already demonstrated their antipathy toward their own education. The other students have needs, too.
No one wants students to be suspended or expelled. No one wants people to go to jail, either. Sometimes, that’s the only option that remains.
This is another instance of the school system being asked to solve a problem that is not ours to solve. Our attempts to solve it cost millions of dollars and countless hours.
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Seattle Public Schools discriminated against African-American students because they are three times as likely to be suspended as white students. The disparity needs to be addressed separately from the Senate bill.
I had a student this year. Because he’s still a minor, I’ll change his name to Rheece. He was suspended at least three times in four months. What kind of student was he?
Rheece hardly ever had a pencil. But he always had a cellphone. He couldn’t stay seated for more than five minutes, and constantly distracted other students by talking or throwing things at them. He would lose assignments the day I gave them, then ask for another copy, only to find the original one the next week, still untouched.
Naturally, all this led to increased conflict with his teachers (hence the suspensions). Bad language, insulting how we look and swearing at us, arguing, refusing to listen, refusing to follow directions. Oh, and he didn’t learn much either.
And I had two similar students in the same class. I heard racial epithets more times in four months than I would have heard living in the South in the 1800s.
What do schools do with students like this?
We have meetings with administration. Talks with other teachers and parents. Dialogues with special-education experts, nurses, counselors, mental-health specialists and tutors. We have full-time employees devoted just to them, the bottom 5 percent.
With all that, Rheece still gave up. In December, he and the other two students quit school or transferred. So all our efforts, money and time, and our aggravation, frustration and stress felt completely wasted.
Not coincidentally, my remaining students had a much improved class environment the last six weeks of the semester.
How much opportunity do we owe students like him, at the expense of the other 25? Don’t they deserve a conflict-free, respectful classroom that focuses on learning?
The emotional cost brought on by students like Rheece is one reason for high teacher turnover.
At my school, we usually send work home during longer suspensions. In 12 years, I have never had a student do any of it.
We live in a country filled to the brim with resources for learning, both in and out of the school building. A time must come when the right to a free education is lost. We don’t owe them any more than we are wearing ourselves thin already giving them.
They need to receive it while it’s still free, and thank us.
Dan Magill teaches high school in Seattle Public Schools. He blogs at www.edu-truth.com