Mounting Suspensions of Students Can Lead to Prison for Many

Nat Hentoff

Amid all the inflamed debates about collective standardized testing of students—while judging teachers by the results—too little attention has been paid to a practice that results in actual, destructive interruptions in schooling: “In a 2013 study, the Civil Rights Project estimated that more than two million students were suspended during the 2009–2010 academic year,” notes Carrie Kamm, a mentor-resident coach with the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

A powerful protest against these obstructions in learning comes from Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the most persistently active and knowledgeable force for real-life educational reform in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): “Every day in New York, 320 children are suspended from school. Half are black; most are poor; nearly one-third have special needs.”

It gets worse, as I often reported during my many years covering NYCLU lawsuits as a columnist on New York’s Village Voice. Here’s how Lieberman summarizes the problem now: “Because school discipline in New York is routinely treated as a criminal matter, our public schools feed the prison to school pipeline—sending (often after suspension) our children to jail—for infractions as benign as writing on a desk, losing a paper summons or coming to school without identification. . . . We have more than 5,500 school safety officers but only 3,200 guidance counselors.”

These safety officers include those employed and purportedly trained by New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who, as of this writing, will be replaced when new mayor Bill De Blasio takes office. Blasio made no mention of school suspensions during his robust campaign. Lieberman and her equally alert NYCLU colleagues will be watching the new mayor closely because, as she emphasizes: “Students who are arrested or suspended are less likely to graduate from high school. They are far more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. . . . Excessive disciplinary policies . . . put our most vulnerable youth at even greater risk for educational failure and undermine their passage to independent, productive young adulthood.”

Among them—and this, of course, applies not only to New York’s public schools—are students with special needs. Lieberman continues: “[T]housands of children with emotional and learning challenges who require specialized support are entrusted to adults who are never told about their special needs—and who are never given the tools they need to address those needs.”

To what extent is this happening in the schools in cities where you live? Are parents organizing to find out? Are your city and state ACLU affiliates as actively involved in rescuing students with special needs from dead-end lives as is the NYCLU?

Also very much worth considering are suspended students not yet on track for a future in prison but who might find themselves there if they continue to be suspended. In this regard, Kamm’s astute advice to teachers of such students should be read by every parent. When suspension happens, teachers need to keep connecting these students to their learning while they’re not in class. For example, teachers are

to work with your students’ families to make sure they have work to complete for each day they will be out. If possible, try to find a sibling or friend who will bring work back and forth. This will help support a feeling of connection and continuity. Consider including a note of encouragement to let the student know that his or her presence will be missed in the classroom. . . .

When the student returns to the classroom, it is important to offer a fresh start and a warm welcome. At the beginning of the day, make sure to have a brief individual conversation with the student, letting her know that you are glad to see her back in class. If this isn’t possible, you might choose to leave a positive message on the student’s desk.

A colleague recently told me about a student who returned to his classroom after an expulsion period of three months. When the student was gone, the teacher kept his assignments and handouts in a box. When he returned, the teacher presented the box to him, explaining that these were his materials and she wanted to make sure that he had an opportunity to decide what he wanted to keep.

And dig this, as a true consequence of being truly welcomed back: “The student was quite appreciative of the gesture, which signaled that he had been remembered and was welcomed back to the classroom community. . . . The student then struggled with having positive relationships with peers and other teachers, so the gesture went a long way to giving him a good start back at school.”

Equally important: “If the student was suspended because of an incident that occurred in your classroom, it is important to make time to reset expectations and reestablish a positive relationship. . . . This can happen before or after school, or perhaps over lunch. Since time has passed since the incident, be sure to focus on moving forward rather than rehashing what happened.”

I would add that concerned and observant principals in schools where such suspensions take place should focus on having teachers who will reach out and teach colleagues in similar situations how to bring such absent students back into the learning community.

And what of the less-concerned and less-observant principals of schools where cruel, unjustified student suspensions are taking place? They should be held accountable for the high recidivism among suspended students for whom no meaningful efforts are made to assure them they were truly missed.



Kamm, Carrie. “School Suspensions: Sup­porting Students During a Challenging Time.” Available at

Lieberman, Donna. From a October 29, 2013, New York Civil Liberties Union press conference to release the report A, B, C, D, STTP: How School Discipline Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline.


Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).

Too little attention has been paid to a practice that results in actual, destructive interruptions in schooling.

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