04/06/2015 03:05 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2015

Why Are Kids Suspended?

Mayor de Blasio's recent announcement that the New York City Department of Education would seek to reduce the number of student suspensions has sparked a conversation about the effectiveness -- and fairness -- of suspensions as a disciplinary tool. The Department of Education reported that in the 2013-2014 school year there were 53,504 suspensions in NYC. We debated this as a society for decades, and it is time to talk about what triggers the behaviors that result in thousands of suspensions, and how schools could better address them.

Under the Mayor's new proposal, there will be an increase in principal accountability of suspensions and in the use of restorative justice and peer mediation programs -- community approaches to handle offenses. The goal is to create a safer school climate that ensures the social-emotional and behavioral success as well as the educational success of all students. Like many working in the public school community, I applaud this direction. When a suspension deprives a student of the support system a school could provide, it massively increases that student's likelihood of dropping out of school, being at risk for court involvement, or future unemployment. Suspensions may not be directly responsible for these larger issues, but they are, according to The Civil Rights Project, one of the greatest indicators of whether a child will drop out. A 2011 report from the National Education Policy Center found that 95 percent of suspensions are for disruptive behavior. So the question is why are some children more likely to engage in this type of behavior and are suspensions -- often a predictor of future entanglements with the law -- really the answer?

Childhood trauma is a primary contributor to disruptive behavior in the classroom. Traumatic events for children include abuse (emotional, physical, sexual); neglect (emotional, physical); and growing up in households with domestic violence, and drug or alcohol abuse. Child Trends, a nonprofit research center, reports that poor children are more than twice as likely as their more affluent peers to experience multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the probability of severe childhood trauma decreases as family income increases. They found that 14 percent of children living at the poverty level or below had three or more adverse experiences, compared with only six percent among children living at more than twice the poverty level.

The stress of living in poverty and the deep-rooted trauma from ACEs often manifests in the classroom as "problem" behaviors. Students living in poverty face enormous external challenges--including community and housing instability, food insecurity, neglect and neighborhood violence. How can an eight-year-old understand healthy interpersonal interactions when he is hungry, scared or worried about his parents? Too often, behavioral issues are symptoms of stress--stress that stems from chronic trauma.

At Partnership with Children (PWC), we work with schools to identify the child's specific needs and provide the appropriate mental health interventions and a supportive environment. Oftentimes when we start working with schools, we find teachers who are overwhelmed and schools feel they have no choice but to remove the child from the classroom and the school. These punitive approaches end up unfairly targeting the very children who need support services most.

PWC social workers are in schools in some of New York City's highest-need neighborhoods to provide early intervention and emotional support to address disruptive behaviors and alleviate the burden of toxic stress these students face. Expanded mental health services in schools are crucial in providing all children a safe and supportive environment, and to promote social-emotional learning, coping skills, resilience, and healthy development. Children who receive this type of support are significantly less likely to engage in behavior that results in suspensions. At PWC, we see that our students demonstrate improved classroom behavior, are less disruptive, and spend more time on task. Teachers and principals have more time for academics.

Currently, as researchers at Northwestern and the University of Chicago have noted, school personnel better understand physical handicaps such as blindness, physical disabilities, deafness, autism, and speech impediments better than the emotional issues and learning barriers resulting from traumatic childhoods. It is crucial that we prioritize the mental well-being of our students to ensure them both present and future success.

Suspensions are not the root of the problem, rather they are often a symptom of poverty-induced trauma. Our work is based on the fundamental belief that all children love to learn and seek belonging, but they must feel safe and connected within their school community to flourish. Expanded school-based mental health services improve outcomes for students: attendance increases, students behavior and overall school climate improve; schools become safer and better places to learn, and teaching becomes more effective. Rather than suspending challenging students, we should create the conditions for them to succeed. As educators and social workers, we have an obligation to help children better cope with circumstances over which they have no control.