"Suspension, and definitely expulsion, is always a sign of a school's failure to solve problems for a child," Judith Sandalow, executive director of D.C. Children's Law Center, told The Washington Examiner's Lisa Gartner in Sunday's edition. "We want them in class, learning. Behaviors that are causing suspension should be seen as symptoms of a disease, and you need to find the right cure for the disease, not just treat the symptoms."
Sandalow was commenting on the high suspension rates in a handful of D.C. public charter schools, which have prompted some D.C. officials to call for a citywide uniform disciplinary policy. We agree that schools can be too quick with severe disciplinary measures, but we take issue with Sandalow's underlying logic, which is widely shared. Bad behavior is neither a disease nor a symptom of one. It is a habit that students develop -- for whatever reason -- and which in most cases can still be broken in youth, if appropriate school discipline leaves a sufficiently strong impression.
We have inveighed against zero-tolerance policies on many occasions, because serious punishments are supposed to protect students from the far more severe consequences of carrying bad habits into adulthood. A Draconian policy that mindlessly imposes near-adult severity on children for trivial or typical infractions defeats this purpose. But so does a policy that mindlessly views all suspensions or expulsions as bad by definition, or sets the regular D.C. public school system's failed disciplinary system as the standard for comparison.
Some of the charter schools in question provided very reasonable explanations for high suspension rates. College Prep, for example, uses one-day suspensions to arrange parent-teacher conferences on students' behavior when they test the limits of school discipline. Far from a "failure to solve problems," this may be the best possible way of addressing them head-on -- encouraging parental involvement before disciplinary problems get out of hand.
This example demonstrates why charters should keep their autonomy in setting disciplinary policy. A cold tally of suspensions and expulsions per capita might indeed indicate problems at a couple of schools, but it is only a starting point for judging a school's disciplinary policy.
The DC Public Charter School Board routinely holds charter schools accountable for poor academic performance, even revoking charters when necessary. Such accountability is one of the charter system's biggest selling points. The charter school board should likewise remain the arbiter of whether a school's disciplinary policy is inappropriate.