The issue of school discipline ranks as one of the biggest challenges in education. There have been several approaches attempted in an effort to effectively address this challenge. One of the more common approaches is placing suspended students in an alternative school setting. Clearly, there are cases where students require removal from the general school environment.
Student safety is foremost among those reasons. The safety of students and teachers must be counted as a top priority in any school setting. When a student’s behavior is habitually violent, it can be argued that removing the violent student and placing him in an alternative environment will substantively discourage overall acts of violence within the school setting. This will help to provide all students with a safe and orderly classroom.
Another argument in favor of alternative schools has to do with establishing appropriate school culture. Recent studies have shown that the likeliness of other students to act out within the classroom dramatically increases when there is the perception that unacceptable student behavior is tolerated. Allowing unacceptable student behavior to go unaddressed seems to actually encourage additional occurrence’s from a broader range of offenders.This will clearly impact the overall school culture, and establish a dysfunctional norm that is difficult to suppress without the threat of re-assignment.
Not only does school culture change, but valuable resources are directed away from the primary purpose of educating students when that teacher is confronted with a habitual behavior issue. Without the option of alternative schools, it is more likely that administration will allow chronically misbehaving students to remain in the classroom. Expulsion is wrought with paperwork, justifications, and legal issues. It is simply easier to re-assign a student. For example, it is actually against federal law to expel a special education student with an IEP or suspend that student for more than 10 days per school year. Not only does this impact the teacher, but then the entire classroom is held hostage by misbehaving students. The use of alternative schools to address and redirect this type of negative behavior can allow the class the needed respite from this drain on school resources.
As is the case with most policies, I encourage a balanced approach to its implementation. Here are some practical parameters to follow:
1. Alternative schools should be short-term with certain exceptions. Unless there are serious, legally binding, or habitually violent behaviors, students should be provided with the chance to re-enter the general school population in a timely manner.
2. School districts need a clear, comprehensive intervention process as part of the discipline procedure used as a precursor to placing students in the alternative setting.
3. Alternative schools should be staffed and resourced by licensed educational specialists, with a component focused on rehabilitation and behavior modification.
4. Alternative schools should hold high, rigorous academic and behavioral expectations, and should never be seen as a lesser school than the general classroom environment.
5. Again, the goal of these schools should be preparing students to re-engage within the general school environment as effective members and contributors. In certain limited cases, it is fair to say that some students are best served within the alternative school setting and should remain there for extended periods of time, but these should be the exception and not the rule.
In conclusion, it is important to approach the practice of alternative placement with a balanced and flexible perspective. We must remember that the same standards and objectives that apply to the student at-large population should ultimately govern the quality and delivery of academic services within that alternative school context. Failure to ensure this is failure to provide all of our children with a quality education.