Virginians Believe School Suspensions Ignore Students’ Needs

School suspension is a tool used by teachers and faculty when they don’t have any other options other than to remove a disruptive child from the classroom, or to teach a child a lesson because of misbehavior in the school.

But school suspensions, especially long-term, can create a revolving door for students – circulating from the classroom to discipline without stopping to address the core of the problem. Sometimes making the situation even worse.

Kalishia Mitchell’s daughter is 16, a freshman in high school. She has been through a few long-term suspensions since middle school. Mitchell doesn’t condone her daughter’s actions, but the school’s lack of care when it came to making sure her daughter got the education she needed while she was out of school made it difficult for her daughter to stay up to speed with the rest of her class.

Her daughter just returned to school after a month long suspension, and Mitchell believes if she wasn’t a stay-at-home mom her daughter might have fallen back in her education. Her daughter had been sent home without instruction or study sheets for the material she is supposed to be learning while away from school. Forcing her to chase down teachers to get the work.

Mitchell worries about the children whose parents aren’t pushing them to do their work at home, and then have trouble catching back up in school.

“When you’re suspending them you’re actually putting them back into an environment that could be linked back to the reasons why they’re being suspended,” said Mitchell.

Her children have attended public schools in both Hampton Roads and Newport News, but she said public schools are all the same – full of overworked and underpaid teachers.

As lawmakers debate the state budget, there is a possibility for pay raises for teachers as well as increased funding for K-12 education. One version of the budget will increase the amount of money Virginia public schools get from the lottery. 

Mitchell has volunteered in her children’s schools and has substituted from time to time. She called the school system a revolving door, students who are suspended aren’t adequately educated while they are at home, and because of the frustration of not understanding the material at school, they act out, possibly causing another suspension.

“Suspensions are set up as to where the child doesn’t really get to have a real understanding of what they did,” said Mitchell.

While laws like Sen. Bill Stanley’s, R-Franklin, bill to ban suspensions from kindergarten to third grade is a great place to start, suspensions aren’t the root of the problem. Adequate resources aren’t being given to teachers to help address the source – whether it be behavioral problems linked to mental health or disability, or problems in the home.

Cristy Horsley, an advocate manager for Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, said in an interview with Richmond Reporter that in her work she had noticed a few patterns, particularly children who are held back or suspended from school usually have underlying problems.

But it’s not always the teacher’s fault – the resources are just not there. Teachers are sometimes backed into a wall because of lack of knowledge of how to handle the situation or school zero-tolerance policies.

A survey from Virginia Commonwealth University this year showed that three in five Virginians don’t think public schools have the funding that they need.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, introduced legislation to require every school to have a mental health worker and another to keep special education teachersworkload at a maximum of five children, so every child could get the attention they needed. Currently, children with disabilities have some of the highest rates of suspension in Virginia. Both bills died very early in the session without a full committee hearing.

Kimberly Tucker, a former school administrator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, had similar concerns. She saw many children who were caught in the cycle of school and suspensions.

“We don’t know how to deal with children who are different,” Tucker told Richmond Reporter. “We feel like every child has to be compliant, sit quietly in a chair, not move, not ask too many questions, always do their homework and never defy authority. When they don’t fit that mold, teachers sometimes see that as a personal affront.”