Every day around 30 of the residents at Hillsides make their way to public schools in Pasadena. In spite of the acute needs that justify their enrollment in our residential program, these children are assessed to benefit from a less-structured educational program than the one available to them at our on-site special education school even though many staff serving the children have reservations. Inevitably on most days at least one, if not a couple of these students, are suspended from school.
Ostensibly suspension or expulsion is the result of disruptive behavior. However, I suggest that it is more of a statement about the school’s capacity to support and manage these students effectively. I do not say this to excuse disruptive behavior but to point out that the behavior notwithstanding, public schools are ill-equipped to address the complex issues that challenge these students. In many instances, these clearly over-extended schools have no recourse but to dismiss students rather than delve further into the source of the problem. The result is that all parties are traumatized and robbed of any confidence to successfully address the instruction of students with such acute needs.
Suspension and expulsion are not something exclusive to children experiencing significant emotional challenges. As it turns out, a recent study of 32 California school districts show that it is a common occurrence in many schools. California’s elementary school children missed an estimated 113,000 days of school last year due to suspensions alone. African-American students from first through fifth grade are suspended more than twice as much and in first and second, up to three times more than white students, pointing to a tremendous racial disparity. Students who are expelled or suspended from school are also more likely to drop out of school and get involved in the criminal justice system. What might seem to be a mere disciplinary issue is much more an indicator of a failed strategy that has jeopardized our students with a disproportionate impact on students of color and special needs.
Some might be surprised that this issue warranted the attention of legislators. Recently Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed AB 420 that calls upon the public school system to limit the use of suspension and expulsions. Clearly, such extraordinary measures are required lest this remedy to student disruptive behavior continue to have the negative impact that has threatened the success of a generation of students.
We have found at Hillsides that the response to inappropriate behavior is not isolation of the students but rather engagement to discover what might be the root cause of such behavior. This kind of engagement is a challenge for an educational system that is stretched to do more with fewer resources, but it is the only solution for students who are desperately acting out in order to get the attention of those who could potentially have the greatest impact on their lives.
This is in no way an indictment of our public school teachers who provide heroic service at great sacrifice. This is a call to equip our schools and teachers with a learning environment that takes into account the many needs of a diverse student body while providing all students with a keen sense of being cared for. This is what public education can offer our children. Resorting to heavy-handed tactics of suspension and expulsion is counterproductive, and more a sign of the education system’s failure than an effort to hold students accountable.