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Article of Interest - Suspensions/Expulsions

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TV, No Homework Can Turn Suspensions Into Vacations
Ian Shapira, Washington Post, November 28, 2005
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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 justice.

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 absence.

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 rights leaders.

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 Principals.

"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 teach children."

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 year.

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 department.

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 bars.

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