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.