Homework Can Turn Suspensions Into Vacations
Ian Shapira, Washington Post, November 28, 2005
For more articles like this
This was Kymber
and Shawnte Andre-Sanders's punishment early this month:
The Prince William County sisters spent the day in their
pajamas, luxuriating in front of the television, contemplating
50 Cent's song "Window Shopper," T.G.I. Friday's
chicken-sandwich commercial and, occasionally, such CNN news
flashes as "Elvis Foils Robbers."
"Wow, wow, wow -- look at him," said Shawnte, 14, staring at the
picture of an impersonator who had helped police catch a man
suspected of stealing memorabilia from the Elvis-A-Rama museum
in Las Vegas.
The sisters, good students who had never gotten into serious
trouble at school before, they said, were suspended for five
days for a bus stop tussle. How they spent those days highlights
an increasingly intense debate about the effectiveness of such
punishment in one of the education system's murkier realms of
Sitting on the floor of their bedroom, Kymber, 15, laughed,
adjusted her Rugrats blanket and then fell under the hypnotic
powers of the $200 cell phone she bought with her own money. "I
just sit and wait for calls," she said, her eyes darting between
the television set and her phone, which she constantly flipped
open and shut as if it were an appendage in need of exercising.
If hardship seemed suspiciously absent, so was a fear of stigma.
Kymber picked up her phone and started chatting with a friend,
who, as it happened, also was suspended.
"Are you not at school? Are you home? Did you get in trouble
[with your parents] for being suspended? Why were you suspended
the other times? Dang. You're a troublemaker," Kymber prattled
to the friend. "Tell me the other two reasons you were
suspended. Tell me the stupid reasons. Oh, a tardy? What's the
other one? Tell me. Mine's a dumb one, too. Cussing around the
principal? You're lying. You're real quiet around me."
This is what the sisters did not do on their temporary
banishment from Stonewall Jackson High School near Manassas:
class work or homework.
The rules governing suspensions -- particularly whether students
get credit for doing work during their punishment or are allowed
to make it up afterwards -- vary among and within the country's
15,000 school systems. Depending on the severity of the
student's conduct, a school might not permit a student to make
up exams or graded assignments.
And what happened to the shame of it all?
For some school scofflaws, sitting at home and watching music
videos all day might seem like a real coup. But work-free
suspensions can result in students scrambling to catch up on
work and getting zeros on exams administered during their
Pamela Berthold, who is Shawnte's English teacher, said she is
ambivalent about suspensions that allow students to fritter away
valuable time in front of a television set.
"As an employee of the school system, I comply with the
policies, but on a personal level, I am conflicted," she said. "Shawnte
is one of the first to raise her hand when I read a poem. But
she's not allowed to make up work. . . . I happened to have a
journal check, and that's a 100-point grade. Although she kept
her journal current, according to the guidelines, I am supposed
to put a zero in the book."
Kymber has a 4.0 grade-point average and Shawnte has a 3.7,
their mother said.
But these days, when school violence often can escalate into
dangerous situations, administrators suspend students who they
think pose even remote threats.
Nationally, schools are doling out more suspensions to students
-- some of whom receive them several times in one academic year
-- for a litany of reasons: talking back to a teacher, carrying
knives, cheating or using a cell phone in class.
Between 2000 and 2002, suspensions nationwide increased from
3.05 million to 3.08 million, according to the Department of
Education's most recent data. In the Washington area,
suspensions are increasing in Virginia but decreasing in
Maryland. Between 2002 and 2004, the most recent data available,
suspensions in Virginia rose from 196,000 to 223,682; in
Maryland, between 2003 and 2005, they decreased from 141,504 to
124,540. School officials in the District said comparative data
are not available.
Over recent years, studies have shown that minority students
nationwide are suspended at a higher rate than white students, a
disparity that has caught the attention of educators and civil
Education officials and experts agree that assignments should be
given out during suspensions, especially because of heightened
accountability measures in effect through the federal No Child
Left Behind law.
But there is no way to know how many school districts make
students do work during their suspensions, said Michael Carr, a
spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School
"It's a big problem . . . if students are out for three, four,
five days. That's a big chunk of time," he said. "We've always
pushed for some sort of process for delivering academic work to
students who are suspended so they don't fall further behind."
Stacy Skalski, director of public policy for the National
Association of School Psychologists, recommends that parents
devise their own lessons or homework, if only to make sure their
children realize that a suspension is not a vacation.
"What's critical is that when a kid is suspended outside of
school that they be held accountable for everything going on
inside school," Skalski said. "If my kid got suspended for
smoking, I would have him do a paper for me on what's wrong with
smoking. If my kid did something to another person, I'd have my
kid write a letter to the other student."
Prince William school officials would not comment on the
Andre-Sanders sisters' suspensions, citing confidentiality
policies. But Alison Nourse-Miller, an associate superintendent,
said that the school system has a general rule barring students
from making up work during suspensions. Principals, however, can
make exceptions. In serious situations such as fights, "a
serious message has to be sent" to the students, she said.
But she also said that even though students may not get credit,
they can still access some or all of their work through Web
sites or computer programs.
Kymber and Shawnte were accused of participating in a
face-slapping, nail-scratching, hair-pulling scuffle with two
other students at their school bus stop. They say that they did
not start the fight and that they were trying to defend
themselves. Their mother, Yolanda Sanders, and the other
students' father also became involved in the fight.
Kymber and Shawnte were suspended for five days, and the
principal later told them that they can make up the work they
missed, their mother said.
"But why couldn't they have just sent the work home? I wish we
could have had that for them to do at home -- it would have kept
them motivated," said Sanders, 33, an operating room coordinator
at Inova Fairfax Hospital and a member of a National Guard unit.
"I know they're being punished. But are they really being
punished? I don't understand the value that they're trying to
Feeling they were unfairly treated, Kymber and Shawnte's parents
are vowing to pull them out of the Prince William school system
after the grading period is over in January. They want to go
back to Raleigh, N.C., where they had been living before last
Toward the end of one school day during the suspension, they
ventured out with their father, a defense contractor, to drop
off a library book and buy groceries. The Shoppers Food &
Pharmacy store was virtually empty. With the aisles wide open,
the family quickly picked out a cart full of food. The girls'
father let them pick out their favorite doughnuts at the bakery
It was just past 1:50, when school normally lets out. As they
stood in a checkout lane, Kymber's cell phone buzzed.
"Hello? Oh, yeah. We're just enjoying our life of being
suspended," Kymber chirped. "My sister did, too. They said we
jumped them, but we didn't. It's all going to come out."
Shawnte was crouched down, her eyes bulging at the new M&M candy
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to