Chalkbeat recently posted a breakdown of the behaviors most frequently resulting in suspensions for students in grades K-2, and the results are … interesting.

Nearly a third of the 801 suspensions handed out to students in kindergarten through second grade this past school year were reportedly for incidents of violence or serious physical disruption. Those infractions included: reckless behavior with substantial risk of serious injury (115 suspensions); using force or inflicting serious injury to school safety agents or other school personnel (104 suspensions); and Category I weapons possession (22 suspensions), which includes everything from slingshots to guns.

The most common suspension is for an offense that used to be categorized as horseplay. “Altercation and/or physically aggressive behavior” is the technical name of the category, and 373 suspensions were issued for it last year, 47 percent of the 2015-16 total. Until the 2012-13 school year, the education department categorized this offense as “horseplay,” though the broadness of the label makes it hard to know how it is applied in practice.

So about 3% of the suspensions resulted from weapons possession; out of about 350,000 students in grades K-2 in NYC, I suppose 22 is a relatively low number, even if it is somewhat mind-boggling that students under the age of 7 are bringing in dangerous weapons (but perhaps this reveals my ignorance of elementary schools). I’m more curious about the relationship between a 6-year-old bringing a weapon to school and the suspension. Is the idea that the punishment is so aversive that the student will never bring the weapon again? Is it not more likely that the student perhaps was not aware of the seriousness of bringing a weapon to the school environment? When you’re planning your back-to-school routines and procedures day, I’m not sure if “don’t bring knives to school” is something that most 1st-grade teachers think to review.

Maybe the real problem is that “Altercation and/or physically aggressive behavior” is a very subjective label, as the author indicates. This seems to allow a lot of “wiggle room” for teachers or administrators looking to suspend a student to twist things. But these broad labels are created for a reason–they empower teachers and school leaders to use judgment in dealing with unique situations. That gives a power to administrators that surely troubles those who worry about the potential for racial bias; I’m sure that advocates would prefer a much more specific protocol or more clearly enumerated set of behaviors that result in suspension. I’m sympathetic to that argument, but such a policy would cut both ways–it would also hamstring the more enlightened administrators out there who are seeking to mitigate the racial disparities in the effects of school discipline by using their judgment to deal with situations individually. As I’ve written before, I’m just not sure that we’re going to legislate our way out of racial bias in school-discipline by attempting to “racist-proof” our policies.

Most suspensions come from a small number of schools. Just 263 out of the 839 district schools that serve students in kindergarten through second grade issued suspensions last year. And of those 263 schools, 40 percent (or about 105 schools) only suspended one student. That means roughly 19 percent of schools are responsible for 87 percent of all K-2 suspensions, reflecting a trend that also exists among schools that serve older students.

Sounds bad, but in a way it makes re-training efforts easier if the DOE knows which schools need the most support.

The percentage of young students who get suspended is tiny, and the number of suspensions is falling rapidly. Just 587 of the city’s youngest students were suspended this past year, or less than one-quarter of one percent of all students in those grades. The total number of suspensions issued to K-2 students is down 60 percent over the past four years, a decline that began during the Bloomberg administration. (Last year, the city required that principals get approval before suspending students in grades K-3.)

My “expert” analysis: that’s good.

Some students are suspended repeatedly. Among students who got suspended last year, 26 percent received more than one suspension. The city did not provide demographic breakdowns for the data, such as race or disability status.

The writer frames this negatively, but doesn’t this actually give the lie to one of the most common claims about suspensions–that they don’t work because they don’t change behaviors and students end up getting suspended again?

74 percent of students who were suspended once were not suspended again. On the surface, this actually makes me wonder if suspensions aren’t effective after all. But there are some missing data here–does this mean only that they weren’t suspended again in the same year? That doesn’t necessarily convince me. If I’m suspending a kid in April of 2016 and he’s getting suspended again in January of 2017, I’m not convinced the punishment “worked” just because he made it through the end of the year. Additionally, we don’t know if students’ behavior changed or if administrators who had already suspended the student realized suspension might not have worked and tried another avenue. (As i feel compelled to point out constantly [and probably annoyingly], counting suspensions tracks how schools respond to maladaptive behaviors, not the existence of the behaviors themselves. Reducing suspensions may or may not mean that student behavior changed for the better.)


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