School Discipline the Case for Suspension

A suspension is most simply defined as a definite period of enforced separation from school as a consequence for undesirable behaviour. Typically, school administrators use suspension as a disciplinary response to such conduct as swearing, defiance, fighting, smoking and even truancy. The notion of separating a student from the school for a set period of time is supposed to confer several benefits: first, it serves as a deterrent to other students who might engage in similar behaviour; second, it provides a “cooling off” period during which angry students and frustrated teachers spend time apart; third, it gives the school the opportunity to separate students who exhibit undesirable conduct from the rest of the population. There are additional benefits, but regardless, the primary intent of a suspension is to extinguish the behaviour by providing disincentives to recurrence.

Increasingly, however, student success initiatives that focus on causes for misbehaviour have begun to question the value of out of school suspension (OSS), particularly for truancy, chronic tardiness and disengagement. The idea that a student should be required to stay home as a consequence for truancy strike some as illogical and, in cases where the suspension is lengthier than the time missed, excessive. Again, examination of the causes for truancy often uncovers anxiety, frustration, low self-esteem, and academic difficulties.

Others object on more practical grounds. These are usually the objections of parents, usually along the following line of thought: a student suspended from school falls behind on school work, loses out on important lessons, and misses tests, exams, or critical assignments. In some cases, parents demand that the school provide the work that the student will miss so that he or she does not fall too far behind, or even try to have the suspension lifted on these grounds. Well-meaning teachers and guidance counselors may even agree to assist students to lessen the severity of suspension, particularly for students who are already at risk of failure.

However, those who object to out of school suspensions, or who seek to lessen their impact, reject one of the most effective methods of dealing with behaviour problems. And though the objections are credible and rational, they strike at the very point of a suspension, i.e. to cause the student academic discomfort. In other words, if a suspension is to have any deterrent value at all, it must come with a price. When a student makes the choice to violate the code of conduct of a school, he or she also makes the choice to accept the consequences.

Students suspended from school for whatever reason endure specific academic and social consequences. Suspension from school is an effective deterrent because of them. Isolating students from their teachers and peers, thereby keeping them from their schoolwork and social activities, is designed to make suspension as unattractive as possible so that students find it a significant hardship. And as a deterrent, suspension is effective: the great majority of students never face suspension from school; some one or two times; and a very small number multiple times.

Those who are repeatedly suspended are the same students that student success initiatives seek to support. Not surprisingly, students who exhibit chronic behaviour problems in school are the ones who most frequently find their academic promotion status in jeopardy. Trying to determine which problem came first is a fruitless exercise in hairsplitting. Examining the root causes of academic disengagement, though worthy, does little to address entrenched or habitual behaviour. While we may eventually understand why a student skips class, or refuses to comply with instructions, we will have done little to deal with their longer-term social consequences. And whether students or parents like it or not, the responsibility of the school and its teachers is to prepare students for the world outside of school, where consequences for actions are real, and sometimes permanent.