I’m surprised that in all of the hubbub over school suspensions, little attention is paid to the distinction between out-of-school and in-school suspensions. Advocates who oppose suspensions rarely or never clarify whether they are against all suspensions or merely suspensions that remove students from school grounds altogether.

If it seems like a distinction without a difference, it’s not. Or at least I don’t believe it is. There is a real case to be made for the value of in-school suspensions, and one of the major texts of restorative discipline–The School Leader’s Guide to Restorative School Discipline–even devotes an entire chapter to it. The authors’ justification for in-school suspensions is as follows:

A restorative approach to serious behavior allows the student to make amends, works to repair damage, and maintains the school’s major purpose to be educative by ensuring that the student in suspension does not fall further behind academically while suspended. In-school suspension for severe behavior shifts the ostensible purpose of suspension from punishment (which it often is not) to natural consequences, clearly communicating that behavior is unacceptable in a manner that doesn’t introduce further risks but is instead restorative and maintains high expectations for the student.

I suppose that the consequence is “natural” in the sense that removal from a community following an offense has been common in almost all societies historically, but certainly not in the sense that being cold is a “natural” consequence for forgetting one’s coat. And while I do actually support in-school suspensions, I don’t necessarily agree that they “shift the purpose away from punishment”–let’s be honest, it’s still a punishment. In some ways, it’s still something that we do simply because we feel we have to do something, or because we feel that the individual who has made others suffer should be made to suffer in some way. The author says that in-school suspensions clearly communicate that behavior is unacceptable, but certainly there are other ways to communicate that (such as a conference) without removing a child from the primary learning environment, even if you do create a secondary learning environment within the in-school suspension.

Meyer and Evans lay out key principles for in-school suspension within a restorative framework:

  1. The student remains a valued member of the school community even while serious consequences are being delivered for unacceptable behavior.
  2. The student continues to be responsible for learning, and negative behavior does not provide a pathway to avoid school work and completion of curriculum requirements.
  3. The student will participate in constructive, educative processes toward reshaping more positive behavior as well as continuing to learn throughout disciplinary procedures.
  4. Both adults and the student engage in a process of restoration and mutual understanding, rather than a process of blame and punishment.
  5. The school maintains its commitment to every student’s full participation in the school community and the learning opportunities it offers.
  6. Consequences for behavior will not be delivered at the expense of learning and opportunity for positive behavioral change.

Again, I’ll say that I support in-school suspension as an intervention, but the logic used here is clearly flawed. I agree with #1 wholeheartedly, and the message that is sent by asking students to come and learn every day no matter what is powerful. That’s a message that’s lost with out-of-school suspensions, which communicate that the child’s membership in the learning community is conditional.

I also agree with #2, as in-school suspension does logistically provide a way to encourage students to learn and hold them accountable for learning.

#3 is great in theory but seems challenging to implement. There is a fine line between using this time to engage students in educative reflection that can lead to personal growth and aversive “punishment work” or “busy work.” The teachers who would be the best at facilitating that kind of growth are also the ones who have the greatest impact in the classroom and are thus unlikely to be utilized to supervise ISS. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it does take an enlightened administration to make this happen.

#4 is difficult but feasible.

It’s #5 and #6 that are hard to justify. There’s no way to argue that the learning experience inside of in-school suspension is equivalent to that inside of a full classroom with a teacher. And if there are cases in which this is true (if, for example, ISS students simply get “the work” that the students are doing in class) that does not speak well of the quality of instruction. Isolation prevents students from engaging in collaboration and discussion and ensures the student will not be able to get learning support from the teacher and other students (yes, there is probably a certified teacher in ISS but certainly not one who can teach every subject in the school).

I accept the argument that the benefits of in-school suspension outweigh the costs, but it doesn’t do the restorative movement any favors to claim that ISS does not in any way disrupt the learning process. Rather we should accept it for what it is–an aversive punishment that nonetheless can ultimately be productive for the student–and seek to mitigate the harm committed to the learning process during its enforcement.


One thought on “Can we be honest about in-school suspensions?

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