Student Suspensions Leap in
by Anand Vaishnav, Boston Globe, 3/12/2003
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With educators pressured to take a harder line with unruly
students, the number of young people kicked out of Massachusetts
public schools for disciplinary problems has soared to its
highest point in six years, preliminary state figures show.
In 2000-01, schools recorded 1,621 "student exclusions," or
removals of misbehaving students for more than 10 consecutive
days. That's an almost 15 percent jump from the previous year,
according to preliminary figures that the state Department of
Education is finalizing for a forthcoming report.
The department annually publishes the student exclusion study,
but the numbers gain newfound importance this year: For the
first time, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states
to identify "persistently dangerous" schools and to draft
guidelines that use student exclusions in deciding which schools
to label as unsafe.
State education officials declined yesterday to comment on the
numbers, which appear in school district profiles on the
department's website. Officials said they will discuss the data
when they release a full report in the coming weeks, with
student removals by race, gender, and school system. Previous
reports have shown that black and Latino students are kicked out
of schools at greater rates than whites and Asians, and boys
more than girls.
Massachusetts schools also enrolled more students in recent
years. But that does not completely explain the uptick in
students removed from school.
Under the most recent figures, the rate of student removals has
risen slightly to 1.6 students suspended or expelled per 1,000
children. The year before, it was 1.5 students. Still, that
small an increase in the rate of suspension for the almost
980,000 students in schools across the state translates into the
double-digit jump in percentage of suspensions.
Educators and psychologists yesterday said the increase in
disruptive students being removed reflects several factors,
ranging from schools not meeting students' needs to a breakdown
in classroom respect, to lingering effects from the fatal
Columbine High School shootings.
The 1,621 exclusions include students who have been removed from
school several times in the same year. Not all of them served
their suspensions by staying at home. Many students went to
alternative schools or in-school suspension programs where
students work in separate classrooms under teachers' strict
Still, the sharp rise sparked discussions among education
specialists about whether the numbers signaled that schools were
getting tougher on discipline -- or whether students were acting
out more frequently.
"It is a little alarming to hear that it has gotten to be quite
high," said Shirley Malone-Fenner, a professor of psychology and
human development at Wheelock College. "There's probably a
variety of reasons. The perception, I think, that some students
have is that schools don't care about them as much, whether that
is real or not. I think another reason is because many of our
schools do not have an organized crisis-management team that is
able to deal with different types of student behavior."
Susan Cole, director of the Children's Law Support Project at
the Boston-based Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said
kicking students out of school is a temporary -- and unwise --
solution. Many students act out because they witness domestic
violence in their own lives, she suggested. Schools face the
burden of trying to keep them focused while at school -- a task
made harder after budget-related layoffs of social workers and
counselors, she said.
"The move today is toward surface punishments that don't address
underlying needs," said Cole, a former teacher. "Students most
in need of help don't get it."
But unions, including the Boston Teachers Union, have called for
schools to speed the suspension of unruly students, saying they
endanger teachers and disrupt learning.
Two years ago, when Boston public schools experienced a sudden
increase in violence, the union criticized the school department
for not referring more students to special education.
Because of their size, the Commonwealth's biggest school systems
recorded the most exclusions. Boston public schools, for
example, had 194 students removed, double the 97 taken out in
1997-98. Springfield had 471, according to the most recent
numbers, and the rising number has triggered a debate over
whether schools are using consistent criteria to suspend or
The Springfield School Committee in a few weeks will hear
recommendations to explain more clearly the consequences for
student misbehavior -- an attempt to streamline a process that
has varied among schools, Superintendent Joseph P. Burke said.
Burke said inconsistency is not the only reason behind the
numbers in Springfield, which had about 26,500 students in
"What is fueling the increase are just more troubled students:
the advancing number of crack babies that are entering into
schools, the numbers of students with dysfunctional homes, the
lack of models for how to behave, the latchkey kids who don't
have anybody at home," Burke said. "The numbers on all of these
are going up. As that happens, we're going to see students
testing out boundaries in schools in ways they didn't use to."