The answer to this depends on what a person means by “relying on” suspensions. If the intent of the suspension is to send a message of how severe a behavior or set of behaviors is, then perhaps over-reliance isn’t an issue. There are corners of the bureaucratic and public-relations sides of education that do not deem a school “serious enough” if, in their perception, harsher measures are not utilized. But if the intent of the disciplinary measure is a changed person, I think it is safe to say that, though suspensions absolutely have a place in the process, they do not have the transformative power they might have once held. And, like a craftsman who arrives on the worksite with only a hammer in their toolbox, administrators are often left to over-reliance on those disciplinary measures which will satiate the public’s desire for action and create the paper trail necessary for future decisions on placement and intervention in an alternative setting where the assumption is “more can be done.” It is unfortunate that handing down a sentence based on pre-determined criterion is far easier to implement and justify than interventions crafted to identify the nature and root of the behavioral problem, clarify expectations on each party involved, and create opportunities for both justice and transformation. These are possible, and take Wisdom, Skill, Risk, Permission and, ultimately, much more Time to create.
WISDOM is perhaps the most difficult to come by, as it often requires highly educated people to challenge the very training they worked years developing – after all, if conventional thinking worked we wouldn’t be asking these questions. One solution for this is regular multidisciplinary input from a wide variety of perspectives on student behavior - not just from the usual suspects of Social Workers, Psychologists, Behaviorists and Special Educators but from Occupational Therapists, Speech Pathologists, and Physical Educators. Each of these disciplines perceives behavior from divergent philosophies, and their feedback can be invaluable. SKILL comes through practice and refinement, and this works best when on a team of trustworthy, student-first professionals that can provide feedback on what seems to be working and not working. RISK is a necessary part of the equation, as there are often little clear and recyclable interventions when individualizing discipline for students through the lenses of justice and transformation. What worked for one student might not work for the next, and what worked last week might not work today. Anyone who says there is no guess-work in this work has either never engaged in it or has a superficial understanding of it. It is important to note, though, that taking risks and being risky are not synonymous: the former is done with a heart and mind on transformative justice, while the latter finds it’s roots in ego and power. These three factors may be in place, but they mean nothing without the power of PERMISSION. School administration is a difficult task at the school level, let alone the district or organizational level. All too often, in well-intentioned attempts to ensure justice and fairness for all students, districts and organizations create policies rather than rely on their professionals, removing from the site administrator the permission to make decisions based on disciplined judgment and the welfare of the learners involved. When faced with career-threatening discipline if they veer from policy-driven disciplinary measures, few are willing to risk so much, opting instead for implementing sentences rather than supports. Districts and organizations must wrestle with the war between policy and permission – and administrators must stand with courage for what is right in order to get the conversation moving in that direction. And lastly, TIME is a factor which cannot be understated. To consider deeply the justice-needs of the offended student or staff, the measures necessary to support the transformation of the offender, to engage with respect the staff and parents of each involved to promote growth and learning, and to walk the tightrope of differential decision-making that threatens to push your school culture towards the dangerous poles of a heavy-handed punitive culture or an open-minded permissive one, time must be taken. Despite the pressures to act, haste is not the friend of supportive discipline.