Stopping Automatic Suspensions

So good news from the world of education. As the American Prospect’s Bryce Wilson Stucki reports, Philadelphia is trying to rethink its school disciplinary procedures, moving from automatic suspensions to a system modeled on “restorative justice”

The cornerstone of KCAPA’s program is the “restorative circle.” Drawing inspiration from the American Indian practice of the talking circle, in which a totem is passed around to signal the opportunity to speak, these meetings are convened for all kinds of reasons, from gauging students’ moods to addressing acts of serious misbehavior like assault or vandalism. In those more serious cases, all affected members of the community—parents and teachers, police officers, kids from other schools, as well as the perpetrator and victim—are invited to attend. One at a time, without interruption, each participant talks about how the offense has affected him or her. Then the group comes up with a plan to repair the damage. It may sound hokey or mundane, but the results are often striking.

“You get kids where at first glance you think, ‘Wow, OK, you seem very hard-core’—full-on crying,” says Thalia González, a professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles who studies restorative justice. Many students from neighborhoods with a history of violence, she says, long for a safe environment where they can express themselves. “With restorative justice, school suddenly becomes a place where you can do that. It changes how you view yourself. It changes how you view each other.”

Borges-Carrera also instituted a peer-mediation program to resolve conflicts before they escalate. Teachers who come across or hear about students not getting along—an argument in the hall, rumors of an upcoming fight—send them to speak with a designated peer who encourages them to talk out the problem. When the program began, students mostly ended up in mediation by referral, but over time, they have come to recognize its value for themselves. “I’ve had kids say, ‘I really want to fight today,’” Smith says. “They’ll ask for a mediation slip, and I’ll be like, ‘For who?’ And they’ll be like, ‘For me.’”

This is a fascinating, welcome development. As we discuss in our report Transforming Perception, school suspensions are a major obstacle facing Black boys in our education system, as they are more likely to get suspended than their White classmates, often for offenses that are far more vague:

…disproportionate suspension rates are a striking example of the “discriminatory discipline” that many Black boys experience. This phenomena is experienced by many parents as particularly noticeable beginning in fourth grade as boys move closer to adolescence, often referred to as the “fourth grade” syndrome. In general, suspension rates are higher for boys. Boys are suspended twice as often as girls (9.1% vs. 4.5%), but the problem is acute for Black boys who are suspended at twice the rate of Hispanic boys and three times the rate of White boys (15.0%, 6.8%, and 4.8%, respectively). According to the National Center of Education Statistics, in 2006, Black and Hispanic boys accounted for nearly two thirds of the three million suspensions and over half of the 102,080 expulsions in U.S. public schools (Planty et al., 2009). 


Sadly, statistics such as these are often thought to reflect objectively worse conduct among black boys – research shows this assumption to be wrong (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010). Rather, black boys in particular appear to be referred for suspension more readily because their group membership leads them to be stereotyped as more threatening, disruptive, and uncooperative by teachers and school administrators. For example, studies find that whereas white boys are typically suspended for concrete and observable violations such as smoking, fighting, or obscenity, Black boys tend to be suspended for violations such as disrespect, noisiness, or defiance, which are more abstract and subjective in nature and therefore more likely to be influenced by stereotyping or bias (Skiba et al., 2002). Black boys’ behaviors seen through the lens of implicit bias are interpreted far differently than the same behavior by a White boy. The suspension statistics are a chilling example of how stereotypes shape behavioral ambiguity to color social judgments (Aronson & Noguera, 2013). 

This creates serious problems within the education system, as “a male student of color who is suspended is three times as likely to drop out of school by the 10th grade and is in turn three times as likely to end up incarcerated (Goertz, Pollack, & Rock, 1996)… by the age of 15, roughly 2% of the black male American population is simply missing; these boys are neither in school nor in the criminal justice system. They are most likely alive, but they are utterly disenfranchised from society (Flynn, 2008). This is a fate suffered by no other demographic group in America.”

You can read the whole report, which suggests some interventions for dealing with this problem, here