Continual disruptive behavior in school is a crime

Q: Studies show us that the loss of instructional time for students who are suspended or expelled is rising. How can we reduce suspensions and keep students in school?

The best way to keep students in school is to increase the number of suspensions.

In many schools, kids can bully peers, assault teachers, sexually harass classmates and create major disruptions; yet nothing is ever done about it. Then we worry about test scores and achievement gaps while the biggest obstacle to fixing those things is right there in the classroom every day: disruptive students. There is a solution.

Put them out.

If you are only focused on the disruptive student, you will never be convinced that suspension is good. But teachers have to focus on all students. We understand that it’s wrong to have a few kids create chaos while the rest of the school is victimized.

This doesn’t mean that suspended or expelled students should be thrown on the streets. We have alternatives to the regular classroom. Reform schools, on-site alternative programs and computerized home study are options that can give these students genuine opportunities to succeed if they so choose.

But what they should not get to choose is to hijack a classroom and hold hostage the learning of their peers.

I know that many disruptive students often have tragic backgrounds. Their stories of abuse and neglect are truly heart rending. But here is the problem: nobody’s story should ever get to overwrite somebody else’s. And even though I feel pity for a child, a teacher’s pity should never permit one child to destroy the education of another.

As you state in your question, the system has begun measuring suspensions by the amount of “lost instructional time.” Every day a student is suspended counts as a “lost day.” If a school has a high number of “lost days,” that school is deemed to have a serious problem. Principals often react by simply refusing to suspend kids for their bad behavior.

Their solution is, of course, insane. But what is even more irrational is judging schools by the number of “lost instructional days.” We do not measure crime by how many years criminals spend in jail. No sane person would ever say, “our country is broken because prisoners missed 20 million days of freedom last year.”

We measure crime based on the number of crimes and its impact on innocent people. We say “there were 150 murders last year” or “75 armed robberies since May.” This information lets us know when we need to step up our efforts in fighting crime.

And by “stepping up our efforts” no one means “reducing the amount of time murderers spend in prison.” But this is precisely the way educational leaders think about the “crimes” that occur in school every day.

Just as there are many opposed to school suspensions, there are those who are against more prison for criminals. But incarcerating criminals makes innocent people safer. A 2016 government study found that from 1980 to 2014, the incarceration rate grew by more than 220 percent. In that same period, violent crime rates fell by 39 percent and property crime rates fell by 52 percent. It makes sense. With fewer criminals on the streets, fewer crimes are committed.

Thus our educational leaders’ approach to school “crime” is the precise opposite of what most adults outside of that looking-glass world would consider. When they talk about schools with high rates of disruptive behavior, they bizarrely discuss how to reduce suspensions. Can you imagine a discussion about a spike in home invasions that focused on how to lower the number of people in jail for home invasions?

I propose for teachers to start keeping records of exactly how much instructional time is lost — not by disobedient students who are suspended, but by innocent children who have to endure their oppressive behavior. Instead of just reporting a student for “shouting obscenities,” we should document that “29 students had to stop learning for 10 minutes while one student cursed out his teacher.”

Maybe this will catch the attention of educational leaders who seem unable to generate sympathy for the vast majority of students whose hopes are being dismantled dream by dream by the harassment of a handful of offenders. Maybe then we can quantify the human cost of our strange fascination with keeping out-of-control students locked inside classrooms with their peers.

And maybe then we will see that as suspensions and expulsions go up, the cost in instructional time will go down. As more disruptive students are taken out of the classroom, grades, achievement, enthusiasm, and teacher retention will all rise. And over time — very little time, I predict — we will see the number of suspensions fall as students realize that their actions have consequences.

Some may criticize me for comparing badly behaving students with criminals. But there really is no more apt comparison. Severe or continual disruptive behavior in school is a crime. It is metaphorical armed robbery. The perpetrators are stealing the educations of innocent children. They are robbing schools of good teachers. And they are armed with a high-powered impunity that descends directly from the conspiratorial consent of educational leaders who refuse to do anything meaningful to stop them.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992. He has served as Charleston County Teacher of the Year, Walmart Teacher of the Year, and CEA runner-up for National Educator of the Year. He currently teaches English at Moultrie Middle School and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance.To submit a question or receive notification when new columns are posted, please email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. For easy sharing and notifications, follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook: facebook.com/teachertoparent.