Commentary

Saunders: Keep more students in school than on street

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2014 

Let’s see, now.

Wearing a hat in the hallway.

Chewing gum.

Being absent.

Passing a crude drawing to a classmate named Nancy from my buddy John that was intercepted by Mrs. Raulerson. (Don’t ask what was on the drawing.)

Saying “damn” in P.E.

There may be others, but those are the reasons I can effortlessly think of that got me sent home from school during my unremarkable academic career.

It’s a wonder I made it out, you say?

Not really, because it’s likely the teachers at Richmond Senior High School would have mutinied had I not received the diploma that sent me stepping.

From a remove of 39 years, I feel all but the latter suspension were undeserved: Back then, saying “damn” – especially “I don’t give a ...” to a substitute teacher who threatened to send me to the principal – was unacceptable. The quick hook in that instance was deserved and I’m still ashamed.

Judging from data released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction last week, most teachers and administrators are being slower to give the hook to – suspend – misbehaving students than they were in my day.

Or even last year.

Statewide figures show that there were 10,000 fewer short-term suspensions in 2011-2012 than in 2012-2013. Short-term suspensions are from one to 10 days, although most of mine were the three- to five-day variety.

The number of students sent home long-term – anything more than 10 days – dropped by 11 percent statewide, but Wake County schools saw increases.

Stella Shelton, interim chief communications officer for Wake County schools, said, “If you look at it relative to other schools in North Carolina, then they did go up.

“You can jump up and down on Wake County and say, ‘Your numbers went up,’ but in 2012-2013, we had 15,378 short-term suspensions. During that same period, the smaller school system over in Charlotte-Mecklenburg had 35,822. In fact, Charlotte-Mecklenburg had more short-term suspensions for African-American males than we had for everybody. So, as much as we don’t like to see anything like that go up, when you look at those numbers – we smell pretty sweet.

“I’m not throwing anybody in Charlotte under the bus, because they’re my friends,” she said, “but it’s an issue anywhere when you’re trying to get student achievement up and you only have so many options when you have a kid in that class that’s cutting up. If we’re going to be successful, we have to have a place for kids who are being disruptive to go.”

Ken Gattis, senior research and evaluation coordinator for the state Department of Public Instruction, said there are places for them to go besides the streets or home. He attributed the drop in suspensions statewide to “a lot of hard work by people in the local districts, making changes in the decisions they make, because that’s what a suspension is – a decision.”

Changes by whom? The students or administrators?

“Obviously the students’ underlying behavior is what gets them in trouble,” Gattis said, adding that administrators don’t always have to employ the same response.

“We can’t say objectively the students’ behavior is improving. We only have the objective measure of how often (their behavior) is recorded and what is done about it.”

Gattis said he suspects the increased use of in-school detention is part of the reason for fewer suspensions short-term, while alternative schools “contribute to the reduction in long-term suspensions.”

Because I frequently have a terrifying dream where I’m back in high school – oh, you, too? – I asked Gattis whether I would be suspended today for wearing a hat in the hallway or chewing gum.

“I don’t think so,” he said, “not unless you’ve been doing it 20 times and every time the teacher sees you you’re wearing it and she gets at wit’s end. Of course, the teacher only writes you up. The principal decides on the suspension.”

Shelton, of Wake County schools, noting the shamefully high percentage of suspensions of black males, said, “I want the legal community to rise up and say, ‘Why are you kicking all of us out of school?’ I want the ninth-grade community to jump up and say, ‘Why are the suspensions so high in ninth grade?’ Because it’s off the charts.”

The parents need to jump up and ask that, too. They also need to make their children behave.

Just as no school system can prosper if it allows a few disruptive students to interfere with the education of students who really want to learn, neither can a system succeed if it doesn’t develop a way to keep more students in school than in the street.

As Shelton put it, “We want to give kids the opportunity to be successful. They’re not going to learn out of school – well, they are, but they’re not going to learn what we need them to.”

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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