08/21/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Schools Should Not Predetermine the Right Number of Suspensions

I very much respect the professional judgment of New York City teacher and blogger Marc Epstein. I also admire his gumption in challenging the latest publication of race and ethnicity data on suspensions by the Department of Education. I have mostly taken a dive on that sensitive issue.

Epstein explains the problem with the DOE's Civil Rights Division approach to reducing suspensions, "It's not the box cutter smuggled into a school that unravels the institution. Rather, it's a student population that is allowed to grow defiant, that's given no reason to respect authority and no concept of what civility is about."

Epstein has previously written persuasively about the lack of civility of "reformers" who have scapegoated teachers for failing to undo the legacies of generational poverty. Even though they mis-characterize the positions of teachers and our representatives, we should not do to them what they have done to our profession. So, I regret his characterization of the data collection as "just (a) part of a nationwide drive to undermine school discipline -- a drive that's already on track to raise havoc in New York City classrooms."

Epstein is correct in arguing that most racial disparities in discipline are a result of "students' lives before they walk in the school door," but it is a mistake to say that they have "nothing to do with discrimination." If Epstein had said that poor children of color face less discrimination in schools than they and their families do in the rest of their lives, he would have been on solid ground.

While I support efforts to reduce suspensions through aligned socio-emotional supports, I understand why Epstein is suspicious of "discipline codes oriented more toward 'therapeutic responses' rather than the traditional suspension." Reducing suspensions without replacing them with better, more complicated, and expensive practices is a common mistake.

I would reply to Epstein that suspensions "are a cause of disparate incarceration rates of these minorities." (Emphasis is mine.) Like Epstein, I would reply to the Education Department that reducing "suspensions, except for the most egregious acts of violence" without addressing the complex causes of disorder is likely to make the "school to prison pipeline" worse.

Epstein describes "cases where a teacher asks a student to remove a hat or move his seat, or a dean requests that a student leave the room and accompany her to the dean's office, and the student refuses." He correctly voices suspicion about the "prescribed antidote for this kind of behavior" which "is now counseling, plus more intensive outreach to parents." In my experience, also, the likely scenario in such cases is that more and more paperwork is dumped on teachers so that they will lower their behavioral standards.

But, he complains that under the new New York disciplinary code, these defiant students can get no more than a five day suspension. Five days!?!? In my experience, unprovoked assaults on teachers don't get five day suspensions! I would be thrilled if such defiance of authority were to be consistently addressed with a parental conference suspension. (Of course, surrogates would have to represent students with parents who can't or won't come to the conference, and that task also contributes to the reluctance of administrators to assess consequences.)

It is not surprising that, "the new code eliminates terms like 'seriously disruptive,' 'abusive,' 'insubordinate,' 'dangerous' or 'violent.'" Banning those categories, however, will not change the realities that those words describe. Instead of seeking tough penalties, or sticking our heads in the sand, we should seek credible consequences that are assessed in a consistent manner.

On the other hand, Epstein seems to have the same problem that I do with the criminalization of school misbehavior. I have often seen administrators authorizing arrests of misbehaving students to keep suspension numbers artificially low.

I hope my fellow teacher supports aligned efforts to reduce the need for suspensions. Surely, he would agree that there is no "right" number of suspensions and that efforts to predetermine the allowable number of disciplinary consequences are likely to backfire. Disorder breeds disorder, so top down mandates to reduce disciplinary actions are likely to increase suspension rates (and incarceration rates) as school cultures break down.

Perhaps, Epstein would agree that the problem with data-driven suspension policies is not that they are too hard on schools. The problem is that they are too soft on the problem. The need to protect students' rights and their safety at schools is too great to be left to primitive numbers-driven enforcement. The challenge of creating safe and respectful environments is so great, that they require thoughtful data-informed oversight, and well-planned and well-funded solutions.