At Risk Kids: In-School Suspension Re-Imagined

Summary: With calls to find alternatives to exclusion of disciplined students from school, in-school suspension might serve as a vehicle through which adult staff and mentors can work with suspended students in a constructive fashion.
In my mind’s eye I can still see the scene from at least twenty years ago. A high school classroom, thirty or so desks, one nondescript window, the characteristic glare of fluorescent lighting, a silence begging the proverbial pin to drop. An adult, a burly athletic type and an instructional assistant, sits hunched over the desk at the head of the room. He sips periodically from his coffee mug, reads a newspaper. Five or six adolescents, students, sit widely spaced in the rows of desks. A couple of heads are down snoozing, a third, with the benefit of the nearby window, daydreams toward the outside and perhaps greener pastures. Another slumps, another reads a magazine. The expectation is that schoolwork be done, but the supervisor in charge of the in school suspension room has arrived at a truce with his charges — keep your mouth shut and I won’t bug you too much to do your work. It is an orderly scene, but not a fecund one. The student silence and resistance to work is that of inmates, compliant perhaps but implacably distant and absolutely unreformed.
I think of this scene as the debate gathers steam about the dysfunctional practice of suspension across too many schools. As test scores stagnate, and every foot of educational progress seems to involve hand to hand battle, attention revolves to those we shut out of school, for short or longer periods of time. Most often little behavior is reformed, yet inevitably the suspended students’ educational progress withers, which places them in increased jeopardy of dropping out of school and of subsequent deletion from mainstream economic viability.
Historically, “in-school suspension” is one alternative disciplinary tool schools have used. The practice does have the virtue of keeping suspended students in the school house, where assorted staff might engage them in a search for an altered path, and where those less recalcitrant might choose to do their schoolwork out of boredom, if not enlightenment. Parents appreciate that they know the whereabouts of their young ‘uns while themselves laboring to make a buck.
The warehousing scene was from my own suburban high school, well into a slow demographic shift to more and more an economically disadvantaged student body, and one increasingly of students of color. The historic march of population back to city, and consequent gentrification, gradually has raised rents and property values in nearby Seattle out of the reach of those of more modest means. Hence, the march to the suburbs.
This in school suspension program, or ISSP as it was known, originally was staffed by teachers on a rotating basis. As school funding lagged, and teachers noted that class sizes went up modestly when one teacher per period was out of the regular classroom doing ISSP, subsequent ISSP supervision fell on the shoulders of less expensive Instructional Assistants. Finally the program was phased out completely, victim of funding cutbacks and its own aridity.
With recognition that out of school suspension practices for minor violations redoubles chronic failure, options such as in-school suspension are bound to be revived.
How might we re-imagine “in-school suspension” so we do not revisit past pitfalls and turn the practice toward constructive ends?
Most importantly, the staff member in charge should be chosen not to provide a plum “off” period in which to grade papers at the front of the desk and to drink coffee, but for their skills in building relationship with troubled kids because, count on it, the suspended kid almost always has some wounds they protect, silently, except when they act them out in a well camouflaged but self-destructive way.
The sterile scene I described initially was not monolithic and modestly a caricature. The coffee drinking newspaper reading coach in fact was good with kids, and had cachet particularly with athletes in their knowledge of his own storied exploits. The school in general had a positive reputation, which I think in part had to do with the quality of relationships faculty had with the student body. The interpersonal dynamic was unsung and more the product of instinctively good people than outright intention, but which since has been compromised by the time diverted to instructional study and its master, standardized testing.
Ideally, the set-up of in-school suspension would reflect a more general school wide conscious dedication to quality relationships with kids. The population of wounded kids is deeper and more silent than only those who find themselves in hot disciplinary water, and all together form a majority of any student body. To document: half of all marriages end in divorce, one in three or four girls has been sexually abused, perhaps one in seven or eight boys, and on.
As a high school counselor responsible for a class of around five hundred students, I probably had 125 or so students on an active watch list for assorted issues which translated into lagging credits toward graduation. The figure doesn’t count students who were underachieving, getting their credits, but at a D or C pace that in many cases reflected silent preoccupations and the inability of the assorted adults around them to reach them where they were.
The body of research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) has codified what quality school folk have always known less systematically. Trauma in kids is numbingly pervasive among our kids, damages both cognitive and emotional development, and can fester without intentional intervention.
The literature on resilience in kids is clear that a stable and caring relationship with adults is one important protective factor in overcoming such negative experiences.
So. A suspended student spends the day in in school suspension. Various teachers or quality Instructional Aides rotate through as suspension room supervisor, improving the chance that one of them will have with him a relationship already. Another teacher or a coach or even the suspending administrator favored by the suspended student may drop by during a planning period, having been notified of the event by internal communication. Priority is given by his teachers to send schoolwork to the student electronically via the suspension room supervisor, who will tutor the student and nudge him forward in his assignments. In addition, adult mentors who have been working with the suspended student on an on-going basis are informed and have both in school and out of school contact.
The message is clear – though there is of course a consequence for your misbehavior, you are still one of us and we ain’t gonna let you down or see you fail if we can help it.
Tenacity in relationship, unconditional positive regard; medicine for trauma.
Inspired by the Adverse Childhood Experiences research, film-maker James Redford (yes, Robert’s son) tells the story of its implementation at the Lincoln Alternative High School (Walla Walla, Washington state) in the film “Paper Tigers.”
Those who arrive in an alternative setting are kids in some sense rejected by the standard school system, whose behavior begs understanding, but which can gradually change to constructive within the network of quality relationships the sympathetic staff provides, as Redford’s film documents. In the Lincoln setting, the in-school suspension supervisor has a knack with kids, and so is part of a rich matrix of adults who subtly draw kids in and affect their behavior positively.
Though the staff/student ratio in this and other alternative schools is clearly better than in a standard high school or middle school, and so relationships can be focused on more thoroughly, for my wife and me, both of us experienced in standard and alternative school settings, the narrative of the film was familiar and the feel of the school authentic to life in schools and in particular to successful intervention in the concerns of wayward kids. Though the film is set in an alternative school, its message applies more broadly to mainstream public secondary schools, with the caveat that increased staffing will have to be an eventual ingredient. Check the flick out if you get the chance.

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One Response to At Risk Kids: In-School Suspension Re-Imagined

  1. Deb says:

    Good stuff…Life changing is the power of adult and student connection; stable and caring.

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