Shift yields declining suspension rate


Daniel Longest

Principal Sam Wynkoop signs Honor Roll certificates in his office Feb. 9.

Daniel Longest, Staff writer

Changes in the school system’s behavior handbook follow a national trend, veering from zero tolerance, a system of rigid punishments for specific infractions. The result?
Figures from the administration show the percentage of students with one or more suspensions has declined to less than 2 percent (see chart) after topping 3 percent two years ago.
“We were suspending for attendance,” Principal Sam Wynkoop said. “Does that make sense? You put a kid in his house when the reason he’s in trouble is because he was in his house.”
Zero tolerance debuted in schools in the 1990s, according to Education Week Magazine, but research began to erode its support. A 2015 report from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy found a potential link between suspensions and an increased likelihood of future involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Now, there’s greater nuance in the handbook’s wording, giving administrators more leeway when doling out punishment for infractions. After-school detention may be used instead of automatic suspension for weapons possession if a student mistakenly leaves a hunting knife in a backpack, Wynkoop said.

“The philosophical shift has been toward support as opposed to punishment,” he said, noting that each county school now has a liaison to provide work and ensure that students suspended at home don’t fall behind.
Restorative justice has brought greater reliance on in-school suspension. This is a logical shift, science teacher Marty Stranathan said, because it lets students focus solely on their school work.
The shift to less stringent punishment is not without critics. Three anonymous teachers noted that infractions such as leaving school without permission, cursing at teachers or cutting classes have gone unpunished, leaving teachers at a disadvantage with discipline.
Assistant principal Robert Murray defended the new system. Depending on the severity of a student altercation, he said, there may be no need to suspend antagonists.
“Nine out of 10 times they’re friends who had an issue with each other that went too far, and you can usually mediate,” Murray said.