School suspension is supposed to be a punishment.
But some children might view it as more of a vacation, gladly trading in a day of reading for a day on the couch watching cartoons.
It’s a concern school officials are dealing with as they begin to reform the code of conduct in the Scottsdale Unified School District.
In fall, a district committee will attempt to create more districtwide alternatives to suspension, possibly including Saturday school, time-out rooms and more seats at Sierra Vista Academy, the district’s only alternative school.
They hope to decrease the number of out-of-school suspensions, which most officials agree is too high.
Since August, Scottsdale principals have doled out more than 1,038 suspensions, a number that includes repeated suspensions of the same students.
“I am looking forward to seeing some modification of this because, I think, suspension is bogus,” said governing board member Christine Schild. “(Children) are far better off in school.”
Like many parents, Schild worries that some children view out-of-school suspension as a perk, not a punishment.
“Frankly, that’s rewarding the poor behavior,” Schild said, describing teens who sleep until noon, play video games, then meet their friends for pizza.
Board member Molly Holzer agreed, saying that something like picking up trash on campus would be a more meaningful punishment.
While Scottsdale’s suspension rates don’t differ greatly from those of neighboring districts, they are still higher than board members, and some principals, would like.
This year, suspensions vary from 3 percent to 16 percent of the student body, depending on the school.
But the numbers can be somewhat deceiving, said Supai Middle School principal Dan Cooper, because many of the suspensions are given to repeat offenders.
Cooper estimated that at Supai, some 5 percent of the school population is responsible for almost all of the suspensions.
“It’s the same kid over and over again,” he said. “If we see a kid five or six times, normally we would send them to Sierra Vista. But there haven’t been any spots there because it’s full.”
Sierra Vista Academy, the district’s alternative school, has a cap of 18 students in its middle school classroom, said district administrator Althe Allen.
A PUNISHMENT IN NAME ONLY?
All those suspensions don’t necessarily modify behavior.
David Wodrich, an Arizona State University professor, said some students could misbehave purposely because they want to be suspended.
For example, if a child is embarrassed or frustrated by not being able to read, taking him out of reading class and sending him home might be exactly what he is hoping for, he said.
This could be a particular problem if a child has an emotional or behavioral disorder, he said, so children’s misbehavior should be tracked and studied by trained staff.
Scottsdale mother Laura Couty said her children know students who have been suspended and they think of it as a holiday.
“As a parent, I don’t think removing a child from class as punishment is the correct way to handle it. I’m not sure what the answer is,” she said.
Aztec Elementary principal Chris Loots agreed that for some children, suspension isn’t much of a deterrent.
Which is why, she said, before suspending a child, she asks parents if they think it will be viewed as a vacation. She then decides on the appropriate punishment.
Cooper said there are ways parents can make it less of a vacation.
Last week, he suspended several students for sipping alcohol at a bus stop.
One boy’s parents told Cooper it would be a vacation for the child, because the child would be unsupervised during the day.
“I understand that point, but I told them, if my child were suspended, I would have the cleanest toilets in the world. There would be no bathtub ring and the grout in my tiles would be cleaned,” he said. “The parents have a place in this, too.”
SUSPENSION AS NECESSITY
Principals, who have the final say in suspensions, said they would rather not suspend students, but sometimes it’s their strongest disciplinary tool.
Cooper said some suspensions improve safety by getting students who pose an immediate danger off campus until their tempers cool.
“I’m not going to allow kids to assault other kids. I have a responsibility to remove those kids who would use violence, to protect the others,” Cooper said.
Other suspensions send a message that actions, such as bringing firecrackers to school, are unacceptable, he said.
Sometimes suspensions decrease classroom disruptions.
Every week or two, Cooper said, a student disrupts a class by arguing and using profanity against a teacher.
“I won’t allow a teacher to be abused. (The student) is usually given a day suspension,” he said.
Alternatives to suspension exist in the district, though many of them vary by school.
Arcadia, Desert Mountain and Saguaro high schools have Saturday school, but it is not funded by the district, so every school cannot afford it, Allen said.
A lack of funding also means most elementary and middle schools do not have an in-school suspension or timeout room for children, because they do not have teachers to staff the room, Allen said.
“So when kids get in trouble, they often just end up sitting in the office with a secretary or principal. It gets a little busy,” she said. “(The schools) have been begging for a timeout room — it just comes down to funding.”
Yet schools are trying different methods of defusing tempers and modifying misbehavior, and the district might pick up some of these methods as it revamps its code of conduct.
At Aztec, each classroom has an area called “Australia” where children can sit and calm down if they are getting upset or having trouble concentrating.
While some elementary schools have used suspension more than 20 times this year, Yavapai, Cherokee and Desert Canyon have suspended three or fewer students since August.
Yavapai uses a four-step “School Citizenship Plan,” said principal Wendy Cohen.
If a child has negative behavior, a teacher will pull the child aside and take up to five minutes reflecting on the negative behavior.
A short talk with the teacher follows, and if that doesn’t work, the child might be brought to the principal’s or secretary’s office,
“We try to provide the child with a book on that habit, such as tattletaleing or teasing, so they can sit and read about the behavior, then make a short summary as to what they learned from the book,” Cohen said. “That’s usually where it stops.”
Supai just trained teachers to use a method called “Choice Theory” in their classrooms, which aims to get children to think about the choices they make before taking action. The school also recently opened a time-out room for students who misbehave.
“I do think we need to find a way to reduce suspensions,” Cooper said.
“I think that will make a difference. We do have to go make a way to get kids to make better choices.”
NUMBER OF SUSPENSIONS SINCE AUGUST IN THE SCOTTSDALE UNIFIED
Reasons for suspensions Elementary schools
1. Disruptive behavior, general behavioral issues 2. Insubordination, staff abuse 3. Bullying, harassment, making threats
1. Fights and assaults 2. Disruptive behavior, general behavioral issues 3. Bullying, harassment, making threats
1. Fights and assaults 2. Insubordination, staff abuse 3. Disruptive behavior, general behavioral issues Other reasons for suspension included: Dangerous material, gang affiliation, weapons, vandalism, theft, sexual harassment, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, closed campus violation, obscene behavior, academic dishonesty, inappropriate display of affection, pranks, horseplay.