Suspensions Fail Students, Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin’s death on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida, is a tragedy of epic proportions. I strongly believe Trayvon would still be alive today and attending school in his Miami-Dade County high school if alternative suspension strategies had been the norm in his school district. Every school in every district should take this opportunity to reexamine disciplinary policies that are historically ineffective.

When you dial back all the events that needed to occur in a particular order to get to the deathly encounter on that rainy Sunday evening, an archaic school practice was one of the key antecedents to Trayvon’s death.

When I was a middle school principal, suspending students from school made no sense to me as an educator or parent. However, it was always the easiest thing to do. It only required parent notification and a little paperwork. But schools should never make it more difficult for a student to achieve his or her academic goals. Usually, suspension policies lead to secondary consequences—academic decline and an “I don’t care attitude” of the suspended student.

In far too many instances, the suspended student sits home alone without any adult monitoring. In some cases, the student welcomes this consequence. Travyon’s father, Mr. Martin, took him to Sanford to supervise him, so he wouldn’t be left at home unsupervised. As a society, we have many lessons to learn from the disastrous set of circumstances that led to Trayvon’s death, but my focus will be on how his death relates to many schools’ discipline policies.

According to published facts, Trayvon’s school suspended him three times in his senior year. One suspension was for tardiness, one for graffiti, and the last one for having an empty plastic baggie with traces of marijuana in his backpack. A 10-day suspension for possession of trace amounts of marijuana might seem appropriate to some, but according to much of the current research the suspension consequence, it won’t change the inappropriate or illegal behavior of the student.

School consequences should be intended to change the negative behavior to something that is acceptable behavior in schools. Exclusionary practices are employed in far too many schools across Silicon Valley and the rest of the country, and the elected leaders of school districts and their superintendents should challenge them.

This should be especially urgent in light of the research data that suggests there is an over-representation of some minority groups among the students who are suspended and expelled. All districts should sunshine a quarterly report on middle and high school students who are suspended or expelled by race, ethnicity and gender. This report should be on the school’s website on a quarterly basis. The data might be alarming, but eventually it should lead to the implementation of best practice models that produce the intended results.

The current economic climate for schools in California makes it more difficult to introduce effective alternatives to suspension policies. However, we must not freeze or fail to act because of costs.

Many schools in Santa Clara County are rightfully concerned with the issue of reducing aberrant behavior among students. Here are some alternative suspension practices that should be reviewed by districts:

*In-Kind Restitution—e.g. painting the school on a Saturday for graffiti offenses.
*Saturday school to learn facts related to drug use, smoking cigarettes and violence prevention/anger management.
*Skill development in weak academic areas in a Saturday school.
*Parents shadowing their children in school on days of the suspension. Inclusion vs. exclusion from school is usually the better policy.
*Professional training teachers in effective classroom management strategies.
*In-school suspension centers coupled with counseling. Sometimes these professional adults will learn things about the personal life of the student which has led to aberrant behavior.

If one of these aforementioned strategies were practiced at his high school, I believe Trayvon would have been alive and in front of his television last night watching the NCAA championship game between Kentucky and Kansas. I also believe we can reduce the dropout rate if many of these best practices are put in place in all middle and high schools. I know that it costs money to do some of the above, but suspending students in an exclusionary way, in most cases, cost schools money for the students’ absence from school.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. > Here are some alternative suspension practices that should be reviewed by districts:

    . . .

    >  *Skill development in weak academic areas in a Saturday school.

    In other words, school is a punishment.

    And the consequence of bad behavior is . . .
    more school.

    So, in order to increase the deterrent effect “Saturday school”, it seems logical to make the school experience even more miserable and punitive.

    I’m not sold on this yet, Joe.

  2. What a wonderful article. Schools are the cornerstone of our society, where we teach our children how to be good civilians. It cannot be stressed enough that when dealing with students who break the rules or have issues with authority figures, we should respond with methods that seek to rehabilitate the bad behavior of the student rather than simply punish it. Suspending a student sends the wrong message.

  3. Mr.  DiSalvo.

    I believe Travyon should never have been accosted by this fellow who did kill him without cause by making assumptions about a decent child who was just buying candy.  On the subject of assumptions, aren’t you doing the same assuming he would watching basketball?

    You assuming he would be watching baskbetball, not reading, or working on an Ipad, or perhaps drawing.  Why?

    • Trayvon Martin was watching the NBA All-Star game the night he was killed. He went to buy Skittles and iced tea during halftime. It’s reasonable to assume he enjoyed watching basketball and would have tuned in to the NCAA championship game.


  4. The circumstances around Trayvon’s death are more important than these character assassinations that have been rapidly pouring out. It’s not that what you said isn’t true- it is true- but the fact that Trayvon had been suspended for smoking marijuana doesn’t mean his life is worth less, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the charges that Zimmerman unlawfully killed him.

    • This article does have to do with what happened during the shooting.  Right now, the press is placing pictures of what appears to be a nice young teen who was minding his business and was killed by Zimmerman.  Its not all one sided.  Put all the facts out there.  Everyone involved in this was at fault.  Zimmerman for following him, Trayvon for confronting Zimmerman.  Zimmerman for shooting him.  Its terrible and everyone would like to have the outcome be different, but don’t classify this as Unlawful because of what you are reading in the press.  There are always multiple sides to every story.  There is a reason Zimmerman is not arrested: the shooting was not unlawful.  The circumstances are bad, but you need to look at all the facts and you dont know all of them.

      • “This article does have to do with what happened during the shooting. “
        When did I say it didn’t? I’m saying what your character assassination has no bearing on whether or not Zimmerman was at fault. If you’re going to argue about the murder, argue about the actual MURDER instead of just attacking the character of a dead 17-year-old.

        As for Trayvon “confronting Zimmerman,” we really don’t know what exactly happened. The only person who claimed to visually witness part of the fight shortly before the gunshot said that Trayvon was on top and hitting Zimmerman, but that doesn’t mean that Trayvon initiated the conflict.

        Co-sponsor of the “Stand Your Ground” Law, Florida Senate member Durell Peaden, said “When [Zimmerman] said ‘I’m following him’, he lost his defense.” Couldn’t Trayvon have felt threatened by the armed stranger who followed him down the streets in an SUV and then approached him on foot? Even if Trayvon did attack him, Trayvon’s attack would be protected by the Stand Your Ground law.

  5. You are wrong again. Your comment on his opinion is incorrect. The law was approved by the legiislators not the senator. Again, the opinion is meaningless.  Additionally, the investigation of the facts are up to the police and everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. You keep rambling about the pot. That doesn’t mean anything read te entire article to see the behavioral patterns.

      • Legislators means more than one, implying the majority who passed the bill,  that is what matters when interpreting statutes.  It doesn’t matter if he was a sponsor, or leader of the senate.

        • The entire majority? 92 members of the Florida house and 39 in the Senate voted for it. What happens if they don’t all have the same exact interpretation of that bill? Who is right?

  6. Senators don’t interpret the law, that is up to the court system,  doesn’t matter if he cosponsored the law and as most politicians loves to talk and grab emotional attention.  You are right no one knows what happened, hence there is no evidence to arrest Zimmerman. The whole thing is tragic.  And, by the way, character has everything to do with whether a shootings in unlawful or not, go read the rules of evidence.

    • “Senators don’t interpret the law, that is up to the court system, doesn’t matter if he cosponsored the law and as most politicians loves to talk and grab emotional attention.”
      He doesn’t interpret the law, but he did WRITE the law, which would suggest his opinion on it matters.

      And I’m not saying that NO ONE knows what happens, I’m saying WE don’t. How can you say that there’s no evidence to arrest Zimmerman? How can we know that when the investigations haven’t even been finished? Do you seriously believe that because Trayvon smoked pot we shouldn’t take the time to even ask questions about his shooting? If the investigation proves Zimmerman innocent, then I’ll accept it as true, but to oppose the investigation is just ludicrous.

  7. With the nation in a political uproar based largely on emotions, beliefs, and pre-consisting prejudices, Mr. DiSalvo offers up more beliefs:

    —the tragedy is of epic proportions?
    Hardly. Young men die at the hands of other young men every day. Where is the evidence that Trayvon was anything special? His behavior in school, where problematic tardiness, vandalism, and dope smoking are not part of college prep (for anyone besides athletes), suggests he was anything but special.

    —Trayvon would still be alive today… had different suspension strategies been in place.
    Hate to break the news, but outside of Hollywood movies, the consequences of past events are beyond our knowing.

    —suspended for an empty baggie?
    What motivation do you have for using an everyday word in so dishonest a fashion? Or do you really believe a bag can simultaneously be both empty and not-empty? The bag was either empty or it held a definable amount of marijuana. Trace is a definable amount. The bag was not empty.

    —there are lessons to be learned from this event.
    What lessons? That when a black leader is in a weak position during an election year he can rally his tribe members and compliant media into a racist lather? That’s not news. Robert Mugabe has been doing that for decades.

    Mr. DiSalvo belongs to the camp that believes that a primary function of the public school system is to invest its precious resources in trying to rehabilitate students who’ve already rejected the campus environment. In other words, after spending more than a decade within the public school system—exposed to its rules and expectations, what these recalcitrant young men need is MORE instruction in those very rules and expectations. This is idiocy. Costly, wasteful, indefensible, idiocy.

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