Lower Suspension Rates and Raise Graduation Rates

How Schools Can Lower Suspension Rates and Raise Graduation Rates

(Image: Thinkstock)
(Image: ThinkStock)

A growing body of research shows that nearly half of all children in the United States have experienced a traumatic event tied to poverty or family dysfunction, and repeated exposure to high stress can literally rewire the brain. This calls into question the so-called “zero-tolerance” school discipline systems that many states have adopted in the past decade in response to pressure to improve graduation rates and test scores. “If you run a school that’s based on punishment and compliance, eventually you’re going to push kids out,” Puglisi said. “Your test scores might even go up, if you push the right kids out.”

Around the country, schools are finding that policies intended to make schools safer and less chaotic often backfire. A spike in expulsions and suspensions has disproportionately affected black and Latino students, especially in poor communities. Wisconsin, for example, suspended 34 percent of its black students during the 2011-2012 school year, according to a national study; Florida suspended 37 percent of those with learning disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines last year in an effort to bring down the high rates of students losing time in school, which has been linked to higher drop-out rates. A study released in January showed that high suspension rates hurt academic achievement for everyone, even classmates who have not been suspended. Researchers believe a punitive environment causes anxiety and poor relationships.

“Pretty much every state in the country is re-examining the zero-tolerance and harsh disciplinary policies,” said Nina Salomon, senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “Schools that want to reduce their expulsions are looking at these trauma-informed methods. … They seem to be more effective in changing students’ behavior.”

But some researchers and advocates caution that the pendulum could swing too far. “We so often swing from one extreme to another in education policy, and I worry that’s what’s happening here,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “Zero tolerance was mindless, but it’s also mindless to take away discipline tools from teachers. Tools like suspensions and expulsions are part of that.”

Metropolitan is a public magnet school that draws about two-thirds of its 390 students from New Haven and the rest from surrounding towns. The student body is about 40 percent black, 35 percent Latino and 23 percent white, and 57 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The school began its new approach to discipline when Puglisi arrived as principal in 2010.

She came in with a background as a longtime special education teacher who had run a program to prepare ninth- and 10th-graders to enter a large, comprehensive high school in New Haven. “There were a lot of at-risk children. We didn’t have any support staff, and there were a lot of discipline issues,” recalled Puglisi, a 57-year-old Queens, New York, native and grandmother of two whose kinetic energy provides a presence larger than her trim 5-foot-2 stature. “Every time I interviewed a child, nine times out of 10 they would end up in tears, divulging very personal information that made me think they needed a lot of help. If you run a school that’s based on punishment and compliance, eventually you’re going to push kids out,” said Judith Puglisi, principal of Metropolitan Business Academy.

And then help came knocking. The Post Traumatic Stress Center was within walking distance of the school, known as CT Scholars, and at Christmas in 2005 its director came by to offer a wreath – and an after-school program for the most troubled students. Puglisi accepted and then saw behavior problems and suspensions among those students drop.

The center found funding to provide a trauma-sensitive approach for all students at that school, train staff and develop a mandatory academic course for freshmen to address personal hardships. Puglisi later brought all those things with her to Metropolitan.

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