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Suspension as a last resort

Educators have known for some time that simply kicking troublesome kids out of school rarely solves the problem. When those students come back, the problems that caused them to be suspended or expelled from school come right back with them.

The state board of education recognized that reality this week in a proposal aimed at getting school systems to cut the number of out-of-school suspensions and limit the number of days students can be kept out of class. Under the board's plan, suspension for minor, nonviolent infractions such as using a cellphone during school hours or talking back to a teacher would be available only as the punishment of last resort.

There are good reasons to encourage school principals and administrators to find alternatives to suspending disruptive, rude or disrespectful youngsters, even though such students often can be a teacher's worst nightmare. As miserable as some kids may make life for the adults and other children around them, banishing them from class is rarely the best idea.

Many studies have shown that long-term suspension or expulsion not only increases the risk that students will fall behind their classmates or drop out altogether but that they are also more likely to commit a crime or be the victim of a crime. And when suspended kids come back to school, they may be even more troubled than when they left, because their time out of school was spent among people whose attitudes and activities only reinforced their unacceptable behavior.

At the same time, schools pay a price for pushing problem kids out. There may be a temporary improvement in a classroom previously plagued by disruption, but when the suspended student returns, things are apt to go right back to the way they were before. That's a terrible message to send to the other kids in the class, who are likely to become even more discouraged by the teacher's frustration with the situation and by their own inability to learn as a result of all the distractions they must put up with.

The alternatives include in-school suspension, after-school detention, Saturday detention and out-of-school detention in places where students are still required to show up every day and continue their schoolwork. All these arrangements have the advantage that educators can still keep track of the students and monitor their progress. Simply leaving them up to their own devices only increases the chances they will get into mischief.

The state board was careful to emphasize that its proposals are aimed at nuisance offenses that don't involve the use of violence or a weapon. That's where the line should be drawn. School systems can't be asked to do anything that would jeopardize the safety of students and staff, and the board's plan leaves it up to individual principals and administrators to determine which specific types of misbehavior will be punished.

For many years, minority students and students enrolled in special education programs have been disproportionately represented in the pool of young people on long-term, out-of-school suspension. Shrinking the overall size of that pool should reduce those inequities, but the board is still right to require school systems to pay far closer attention to whom they suspend and why, and to justify those decisions.

Ultimately, teachers and administrators will always have to use common sense in deciding the appropriate punishments. But the reality is, they can't do much to help any of their students if those students aren't in school, so the goal should be to keep as many of them there as possible until they graduate.

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