With Suspensions Down, Some Schools Struggle to Increase Learning

Assistant Principal Michael Essien is in charge of discipline at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco.

Assistant Principal Michael Essien is in charge of discipline at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

It’s a well-known fact at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco that the toughest time to teach is right after lunch. Kids are tired, and trouble that starts at lunch can sometimes carry into the classroom.

Today, the academic counselor is trying to mediate between two girls who were sent out of the classroom, and who are arguing about who’s responsible. Later, three adults have to restrain another girl from running out into the hall.

These girls won’t get suspended today, but they will lose learning time because they will sit in a room while school staff enter the incident into a database and then they will meet with a counselor.

In many school districts across California, schools are cutting down on the number of suspensions. The theory is: Keep kids in class, and they’ll learn more and be less likely to drop out.  San Francisco Unified School District has been a leader, passing a resolution last year to ban all suspensions for “willful defiance.”

To do this right, all the teachers in a school have to build deep relationships with their most challenging kids.

That’s not easy.

One of the challenges is the sheer number of disruptions.  Seventh-grader Alexis Gill says the new policy hasn’t improved her classmates’ behavior.

“They cuss out the teachers, throw tables and chairs and stuff around the classroom,” said Gill.

A handful of seventh-graders I spoke with say they get sent out of class for other kinds of behavior, sometimes for things like leaving the room or talking or using their phone. When these 12- and 13-year-olds have been suspended, it’s usually been for fights. One girl lit a piece of paper on fire and said she hoped the whole class burned.

Assistant Principal Michael Essien says the school is seeking to look at these incidents not as crimes to be punished, but as cries for help.

He walks the halls, greeting students with a smile and a booming voice.

“Who’s bouncing that basketball up there? I need you back in class, man!” Essien yells to a group of boys. And then, to a girl using her cellphone, “Put that phone away, girl. You trying to give it to me?”

Essien says the school needs to revamp its entire culture. Part of the problem, he says, is that teachers don’t know how to relate to students. Most students at Martin Luther King are African-American, Asian and Latino. Most of the teachers are white.

“As a teacher, who may or may not have anything in connection with any of those cultures, how do I make the classroom such that there’s a relationship between the students and I, and between the students themselves, so we can reduce inappropriate behaviors that can get you referred out?” he asks. “It’s building relationships. But it’s challenging for teachers to do that.”

Training teachers to change the way they teach is a long haul. San Francisco has been working with teachers on this since 2009. But there are gaps. At Martin Luther King, not all teachers are trained. And there’s been some pushback here.

Eighth-grade social studies teacher Susan Warren says she supports reducing suspensions in theory.

“I agree, they’re not learning if they are outside the classroom, but for some students, no one’s learning if they’re in the classroom,” Warren says.

She echoes what other teachers here say: They sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the steps they have to take before sending a kid out of class. First, they give a warning. Then they send the student into the hall. If that doesn’t help, they send them to another classroom to reflect, and then they make a phone call home.

“I’m happy to facilitate that process,” said Warren, “but it gets in the way of me trying to teach literacy skills and pure content.”

That could be because she needs more training, said Laura Faer, education rights director with Public Counsel, an advocacy group that has pushed for alternatives to suspension and harsh discipline statewide.

“Universally, the teachers we talk to say, ‘When I first started doing this, I thought, ‘This is going to be so hard, it’s going to take so much of my time, how am I going to do it?’ ” said Faer.  “And then once they learned how to do it, and they spent that time building relationships in their classroom, through restorative practices, they cannot stop raving about how it changes the culture. It saves them so much time, because children are behaved well, and teachers can teach.”

Public Counsel has urged the state to track not just the number of suspensions, but whether teachers and students are really receiving the support they need.

It’s not just emotional support. It’s also academic. Susan Warren says even if she knows how to avoid suspensions, she still has to teach kids who act out because they struggle with the material.

“And if you put something in front of them, they’re not going to do it. They’re going to start talking, they might get out of their seat, they might go to the garbage can six times, and then, they might hit someone on their way to the garbage can,” said Warren.

San Francisco Unified School District officials say they are collecting data online every time a student is sent out of class now. They’ll be able to see why kids are sent out, and what the outcomes are. That should help them target more help to schools that need it the most.

With Suspensions Down, Some Schools Struggle to Increase Learning 10 March,2015Zaidee Stavely

  • Lou

    Wait a minute, I’m confused.

    These bans on suspensions were based on the premise that the overwhelming driver of suspensions was bias and racism on part of the teacher. But it seems as though these behavior problems still exist after the ban.

    Was is it? Are teachers racist or are the kids actually acting out?

  • Lou

    In California, Asian-Americans have better educational outcomes than whites in public schools. So did all these white teachers take secret Asian cultural classes?

    Or maybe Asian parents set expectations for their children in how they should behave in schools. We can’t talk about that so let’s make teachers and administrators de facto parents.

    • Mike Millan

      Asians have to meet a higher bar for citizenship. They leave the trash in Asia.

  • Lou

    If I knew my kid went to a school where someone can try to burn a class down and that person was not expelled, I yank my kid out in a heartbeat.

  • Lou

    This whole anti-suspension movement is based on fraud. The so-called research it’s based on is real advocacy disguised as research especially the fraudulent “research” done at UCLA.

    -There has never been a study that proves suspensions are responsible for negative outcomes later in life.

    -There has never been a study that proves bias plays any roles in suspension disparities.

    -The “researchers” ignored disparities they found such as boys being suspended more than girls and whites being suspended more than Asians. If this were real research those disparities should be addressed too.

    It’s shameful that the media spits out this “research” verbatim and does not question it because it’s all junk.

  • Mike Millan

    The title should be how the NAACP is destroying education for all.

  • Keith D.

    As a teacher, I can say all student problems are completely are fault! Forget the parents who raise them. How can they be held responsible?

    I make a call home and get responses like, “I Know!”, or “Yeah…but they are your problem to deal with!” I can offer advice. Take their phone away,restrict internet and television usage, take their car away, etc. More often than not, I get parents who say they can’t do that.

    As a teacher, we are constantly told to uphold school policies and when we do, we are told to cut suspensions and referrals. When that usually happens, we are then told to have better classroom management, when the most disruptive students are left in class and we as teachers spend more time on discipline than teaching. I have personally have had students request to be switched into a different period because of a problem student that administration allows to be in class and not be disciplined due to the suspension policies. Parent conferences often do not work. Alternate approaches usually fail miserably and by the time something is done, we are six to eight weeks into a quarter.

    I’d also like to mention that I am a Mexican American by definition (even though I just consider myself as an American) and I come from a poor/destructive environment growing up. I had a strong mom, a military grandfather and they had high expectations of me. I succeeded in school and went to an elite university that I paid for myself. I know where some of these kids come from. I know what type of environments that they live in. It really has not helped me in the least bit in dealing with some of the most destructive, rude, and undisciplined students. And, I can relate to them.

    This is not a race issue. It is a social economic issue. Poor White people display the same patterns as poor Asians, Blacks, Mexicans, etc. It starts at home and moves onto their immediate environment and the school system receives the damaged product. A better study would include economic status, parent education, and living environment. A hungry, tired student could care less about anything going on in the classroom. They only care about when do they get to eat and if they can get a decent night’s rest.


Zaidee Stavely

Zaidee Stavely is an award-winning reporter who writes about race, equity, immigration, and education.

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