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Rhode Island Students Suspended Over 41,000 Times Last School Year

Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Rhode Island’s elementary, middle and high school students were suspended from school 41,471 times during the 2011/12 school year, with more than one third of those disciplinary actions taken against students who had attendance problems, according to a GoLocalProv review of student suspension data provided by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).

The figures, which take into account students who were dealt both out-of-school and in-school suspensions as well as “alternative” placements, were down slightly from previous years (44,185 in 2010/11), but Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said RIDE is looking into addressing the state’s suspension rate.

“We at the R.I. Department of Education are committed to helping our school leaders ensure that schools in Rhode Island are safe places for teaching and learning,” Gist said. “I am concerned about the large number student suspensions in our schools. In particular, it seems ludicrous that anyone would suspend a student for absenteeism or truancy. Clearly, we need to find out why these students are truant and to do all that we can to keep these students in school.”

There were 142,854 students enrolled in the state’s public schools last year, placing the statewide suspension rate at roughly 29 percent (although research indicates that students are often suspended more than once). The overwhelming number of suspensions came in the state’s high schools (24,845), while middle schools (13,710) and elementary schools (2,916) saw significantly lower figures.

Some advocates say the numbers are too high and the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime. In a report published last June in the Journal of School Violence, experts suggested that suspension is too often used to address even minor behaviors, such as class disruption, or uniform violations. In Rhode Island, for example, over 700 students were suspended for possessing electronic devices, last year.

The researchers called for more alternatives to kicking students out of school, which only adds to their academic struggles.

“Unfortunately, a myriad of evidence collected over many years indicate that suspensions are not effective in their desired outcome of reducing undesirable behaviors, nor are they effective in promoting prosocial expected behaviors,” the report suggests.

A Solution in Providence?

In Providence, one youth advocacy organization believes it has the answer to addressing suspension issues: Student juries. Aaron Regunberg, a director of the Providence Student Union, said the students he works have been looking into suspension rates for several months and have crafted a plan that would allow students to have more of a say on disciplinary issues.

Under the proposal, if a student gets in trouble, they would go before a jury of their peers along with the teacher, administrator, or other student with whom they had a problem. Each party would have to listen to the other explain their side of the issue, and then the jury would work with both sides to come up with a sanction that will actually force the offending party to deal with the underlying issue, as well as apologize to those his/her action hurt.

“Suspensions are both over-utilized and extremely ineffective,” Regunberg, who writes a weekly column for GoLocalProv, said. “In fact, they are worse than ineffective, as they create a negative educational consequence--students missing school--without doing much to address the underlying behavioral issue. Keeping students out of school for missing school (absenteeism) is, of course, the extreme of absurdity, but the punishment is not much more effective in other situations, either.”

Regunberg suggested the proposal is one way of creating a more effective disciplinary process.

“They understand the failures of suspensions,” Regunberg said. “They see every day how this punishment fails to solve discipline issues. Some students actually welcome suspensions as holidays from school, and even those who take it seriously just end up falling behind in their class work.”

Legislation Tackles Suspensions for Absenteeism

On the state level, another effort is being made to address the suspension rate, according to Commissioner Gist. Last year, State Senator Juan Pichardo and State Representative Grace Diaz sponsored legislation that prohibits schools from using truancy or absenteeism as the sole basis for a suspension.

“Going forward, this legislation can help our work toward improving school climate and student achievement,” Gist said.

For Pichardo, the legislation was a positive step toward addressing absenteeism, which is one of the leading indicators of students at risk of dropping out of school.

“Although truancy is a problem in our schools, it should not be used as the sole basis for using out-of-school suspension as a disciplinary action,” Senator Pichardo said. “Suspending a child from school is not a punishment for someone who is skipping class in the first place. We need to work toward finding a way to keep more kids inside the classrooms.”

Culture is Key

Still, while minor behavior issues appear to make up the bulk of suspensions in the state, there are still incidents that warrant a student being removed from school. In Rhode Island’s high schools last year, 12 students were arrested for arson, 8 for making bomb threats and 104 for weapons possession.

For Providence Councilman Sam Zurier, who previously served on the School Board, one important factor in the suspension rate is the culture and philosophy of the school.

“The teacher’s challenge is to provide the best possible education for each child in the classroom,” Zurier said. “Our best principals and teachers create conditions in the classroom where everyone can learn, but this can involve trade-offs that must be managed carefully, and there are times when separating one student from the class is necessary for the good of both that student and the rest of the class.”


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