Schools discuss suspension alternatives

Published 10:49 pm Saturday, January 14, 2012

The school system is using a variety of old and new techniques to combat misbehavior among students while still keeping them in school.

School Board members on Thursday heard a report on the alternatives to out-of-school suspension, which is used only as a last resort because children have to be in school to learn, Superintendent Deran Whitney said.

“Research has shown the more students are suspended out of school, the likelihood they will get behind or drop out increases,” Whitney said.

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Board members requested the report to evaluate what is being done to keep students in school.

Doug Dohey, middle school coordinator, said the first step to preventing out-of-school suspension is to work with students struggling academically to help them catch up.

“The main idea here is to keep students on grade level,” he said, noting that poor behavior often occurs along with poor academic performance.

To help students catch up, middle or high school students who fail one or two core subjects do extra work to catch up in those subjects while still moving on to the next level in their other classes.

Some students can be promoted two grade levels in the same year, Dohey said.

“We want to continue to grow and move them,” he said.

When students develop behavioral problems, the punishment is geared toward the child’s grade level.

Elementary students might be given time-outs, mentoring or intervention from a guidance counselor, Dohey said. Middle school pupils might be asked to view videos about how their behavior affects others. High school students can receive student mediation or contact with probation officers.

For all ages, one of the first interventions is a parent conference, Whitney said.

“Parental involvement is crucial,” he said. “It may seem soft (punishment), but it’s so necessary.”

Another thing any student can be asked to do is write an essay about why his behavior was wrong and what he could have done instead.

“That’s not just the traditional, write sentences, ‘I will not,’” Whitney said. “It’s more of a process.”

When these methods don’t work, or when the behavior is dangerous, more severe interventions — like assignment to Turlington Woods Alternative School, in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension — are used.

But those options have a cost. There has to be staff available to supervise students who are punished with in-school suspension.

Some of the School Board members wished that new concepts could be developed.

“We need an entirely new system,” Linda Bouchard said. “What I’m concerned about is the slippery slope that happens before this. Isn’t there a better way to deal with the beginning of the problem?”

Whitney maintained that he would not recommend doing away with out-of-school suspension because there are some cases where it is necessary.

If a student had been engaging in dangerous activity, Chairman Michael Debranski said, “I don’t know if I’d want them back in the school building.”