S.F. schools move away from suspensions

(L-R)Students Tre'jor Barber, Tyler Tukes, Ivan Ortega, Marina Middle School Assistant Principle Ginny Daws and Sofia Sanchez sit on the sea wall at Marina Green while taking a break during their run, in San Francisco, CA, Tuesday, January 21, 2014. In a move that has seen a decrease of suspensions, Assistant Principle Ginny Daws has started running with some students after class, an activity and approach that is part of a big shift in how the district deals with defiant kids. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle
Like a firm rap on the knuckles with a ruler or a backside paddling, suspending students for bad behavior is increasingly becoming passe in public schools across California and the nation.

For starters, it doesn't really work, educators admit. Research has repeatedly shown suspended students are more likely to fail in school and drop out.

And logic would hold that students temporarily banned from school are more likely to play video games than penitently mull over transgressions while they are away.

In San Francisco, the school board is considering a resolution that would restrict the use of suspension to more serious offenses, including fights or bringing weapons, drugs or alcohol to school. Principals would no longer be allowed to suspend for what is called willful defiance or disruption - a catchall category that until recently accounted for about a quarter of all suspensions in the district.

Los Angeles is among a handful of districts that have already banned suspensions for willful defiance, and in San Francisco some schools have voluntarily adopted the same policy.

"We should have ways in which we can deal with a student inside our schools without sending them home and losing instructional time," said school board member Matt Haney, the author of the resolution. "What I'm hearing from teachers and principals is that they understand suspension is not an effective intervention for defiance."

Loose definition

Part of the problem with suspending for defiance is that no one knows exactly what it means.

"Everyone has different thresholds of what is defiant," said Thomas Graven, San Francisco Unified executive director of Pupil Services. "To some people, having someone curse at you, that may be the threshold."

To others, it might be refusing to take a hat off or texting in class after a warning to stop. At the other extreme, a defiant student could yell at a teacher, storm out of class, and run through the halls banging on doors while refusing to listen to adults.

Regardless, sending a student home might seem like an appropriate response, but it typically doesn't address the root of the problem, Graven said.

"Willful defiance suspension should absolutely be the last resort when a kid is unsafe," Graven said.
It has been, however, a frequently used tool.

San Francisco's 2011-12 school year had 553 suspensions for defiance out of 2,434 total suspensions. African American students received 258, or nearly half the suspensions for defiance, though black students make up 11 percent of district enrollment.

That disproportionate suspension rate is another reason the school board is taking on the issue.

Higher risk of dropouts

For Haney, it's personal.

As a teenager, he was suspended from school for cursing at a teacher.

For many students, just one suspension can turn a student off from school, leading to failing grades and a higher risk of dropping out, Haney said.

"I was given a lot of second chances, which a lot of people who do not look like me didn't get," said Haney, who is white. "Some of my best friends ended up in jail or worse. I feel like I saw that start in school."

He said he wants to stop the downward spiral before it starts.

"The students being suspended are the ones who most need our support," he said. "Suspension can be a crutch. We feel like we've done something when we've actually made it worse."

Over the past couple of years, San Francisco schools have significantly decreased suspensions.

Instead of sending students home for a few days, many schools require students to go through a restorative justice process, during which they are able to explain their behavior and offer suggestions about how to make up for it.

The school board resolution, which is expected to pass in mid-February, calls for a district-wide plan to ensure every school has the ability to address a range of student behaviors without resorting to suspension, except when required by state law.
"The idea is to suspend nobody," Graven said. "What it doesn't mean is that we're just tolerating bad behavior."

But preventing bad behavior in the first place is a big part of the district's effort, Graven said.

Teachers are learning new techniques to reinforce good behavior and ways to identify early students who might need more help. That will be key to the district's effort, said Christine Yeh, University of San Francisco professor of counseling psychology.

Underlying problems

Bad behavior can often reflect underlying and serious issues - trauma, family issues or community violence. Sitting in a restorative justice circle to talk about an argument on the playground probably won't address the real cause of the behavior, Yeh said.

Schools need counselors, social workers and others to support students and their families. But often there are only a few counselors for hundreds of students - something not specifically addressed in the school board resolution.

"That's what worries me about some of these efforts," she said.

Still, district officials believe teacher training and a focus on the neediest youths will make a difference not only in suspensions, but behavior overall.

In addition, the district is shifting from a punitive atmosphere to one that fosters relationships between the adults and the students.

The old teacher motto "Never smile before Christmas," which was believed to set a strict tone, for example, has been replaced by "Smile and be nice."

Going for a walk, talk

In years past, when students behaved badly at San Francisco's Marina Middle School, calling parents didn't help. Yelling didn't work. Lecturing was lost on adolescent ears. And a lot of students were suspended, but that didn't help either.

So this year Assistant Principal Ginny Daws put on tennis shoes, grabbed groups of students and took them jogging down the street.

"In my own life, my best conversations are when I'm walking with friends," she said. "I realized I could build more relationships (with students) running than by lecturing.

"If they trust me, they're going to come talk to me."

Daws, who is in charge of school discipline, takes students maybe three miles through the neighborhood, walking some, running some and talking a lot.

The girls "like to talk about boy bands. What color nail polishes we all like," she said. "They like to talk about their families."

Student Hajor Soumbati, 13, puts it another way: "We run, and we talk about the problems we have."

The payoff

The approach appears to have paid off.

So far this school year, Marina Middle School has had eight suspensions overall, including those for willful defiance, down from 49 last year during the same period.

A couple of examples show why.

There was the case this year of a girl with a history of fighting who had a nasty note taped to her back by a boy.

She took the note to Daws instead of handling the situation herself.

Last year, "she would have socked him in the face," Daws said.

One suspension avoided.

And then there were the three boys in a disagreement on the playground, with one boy crying because the other two said he wasn't good at basketball.

So, Daws required the three boys to teach her basketball every day at lunch for a week. The students teamed up to teach her to dribble and shoot.

"They didn't have an argument on the basketball court all week," she said.
Up to three more suspensions avoided.

"What I'm finding is when they get mad, they come talk to me," she said. "They know somebody loves them, somebody is on their side."