Lansing School District Fights Back to Curb School Suspensions
Sunday, November 3, 2013

By Deborah M. Walker

How can a student learn in school if they are not there? The answer to this question is simple… they cannot. It is no wonder as the rate of school suspensions climb the rate of graduations decline. Students are being suspended at a rate of more than double that of thirty years ago. School expulsions have risen fifteen percent from 2002-2006. These rates are alarming and it seems this trend is only going to continue yet, local school officials are fighting back and new in-school programs are proving successful.  
There are many reasons for school suspensions and expulsions ranging from disruptive behavior to fighting. It is important for the safety of all students and faculty that discipline problems are handed swiftly and safely and that usually means the removal of the student(s) involved however, there are instances where suspension and expulsions can be avoided or prevented and students can remain in school.
Students who are suspended or expelled from school find themselves ousted from the education system rendering them unable to participate in any school programs or activities. The punishment for a suspended student is harsh. Once a student has been suspended not only are they banned from their school they are banned from all Michigan schools.
“Once they are expelled from a Michigan school they can’t get any public schooling,” said Diana Rouse, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction for the Lansing School District.
This could have lasting effect for the suspended student. While some suspensions may last only a few days some suspensions can last up to twenty days. Students are still responsible for completing their assignments and staying current on class work. This is very difficult for some students who may need the extra classroom instruction.
This problem is even worse for those students who find themselves expelled. An expulsion can last 180 days and requires the student reapply for admission. Expelled students can do virtual instructing and placement testing yet there is no face to face instruction. Expelled students can be out of school so long they fail that school year and must retake that grade the following year leaving them behind a grade and one step closer to dropping out.
“They could lose a whole year and one of the real issues, depending on when the incident happened, you could almost lose a year and a half,” said Rouse. “Your hundred and eighty days may start in April. So go April to the following April. But what could you get from April to June.”
School officials are not ignoring the problems that suspended and expelled students face. Officials are taking a new approach to discipline and hope that working with students and parents can help curb the number of suspensions each year.
One of the biggest pushes in suspension prevention has been teaching the students the Lansing School District Code of Conduct. School officials have been going into classrooms during homeroom and teaching the Code to children. The Code of Conduct spells out student’s responsibilities, rules of the school district and consequences for breaking those rules.
Rouse says that if students knew the Code they would be less likely to break the rules. For example the Code states that if a student brings a knife longer than three inches to school it is an automatic expulsion to the school board. Rouse says that students sometimes brings knives to school unaware of the three inch rule and are automatically expelled. Rouse says knowing the rule could help save students from harsh consequences.
“A lot of times kids will have a knife and they don’t know the three inch rule,” said Rouse. “Well you shouldn’t have a knife at all but a three inch knife automatically goes to the board.”
Rouse says that it is important for parents to know the Code as well and teach it to their children. Rouse says parents who know the Code themselves are in better position to make sure that their child is following the rules.
In addition to the Code, Lansing schools have also implemented other in-school programs to help prevent suspensions. These programs use non-traditional methods to end disputes between students and resolve issues while keeping students in school.
“We have provided intervention behavior specialists in our secondary schools. We contributed to that and we also contributed to our Restorative Justice practice,” said Rouse.
The Restorative Justice program allows students to talk their problems out in school with a mediator and come to an agreement that solves the problem. Parents are also involved. Students sign a contract which spells out the details of the agreement with the mediator. The Restorative Justice has proved successful and since 2005 the program has saved students over 1,838 days of school.
Rouse says that the program is simple. “Get both people involved. You admit what your problem was. You come up with a plan and the parents are involved in it,” said Rouse.
Rouse says the school’s regular discipline authorities are not involved in the Restorative Justice practice. Rouse says that trained staff is responsible for mediating the conflict that way all students are ensured fair treatment.
“We have people that are trained in it so it wouldn’t be the principal of that school doing the Restorative Justice. We would have someone else because we want everyone to be neutral,” said Rouse.
Not only are behavior interventalist specialist available to help mediate issues between students mentors are also available to help students stay and get back on tract. Dionnedra Reid founder of Empower, Motivate, Mentor, Adolescents (E.M.M.A), has spent several years working with students from Lansing schools mentoring them and providing them with counseling support.
Reid says many students with behavior issues are ignorant to the problems they cause and do not fully understand their behavior. They are unaware of their actions. Reid says these children are misled and influenced by negative peers because parents are not around to guide them in the right direction.
“A lot of young people don’t know better. We have single parents. We have mothers working or single fathers and they’re working and they’re focusing on putting food on the table and they don’t realize how much the streets are educating our kids,” said Reid.
Reid says another problem with misguided youth is they do not believe the advice of their parents. Reid says when students have outside guidance and direction it can have a greater impact on them.
“When your parents tell you something you don’t believe it but when you hear it from somebody else then you may believe it,” said Reid.
Reid has mentored students at Eastern High School for the past two years. She has had great success with the mentoring program and hopes to return. Reid has also assisted with the Restorative Justice program. Reid usually works with students during teacher planning hour but due to budget cuts and the elimination of planning hour Reid does not know if she will continue to work with students at school.
Reid says parents have the greatest opportunity to help their child excel at being great students but often times parents are not involved or parents have their priorities in the wrong place.
“If they want to go to the movies or if they want to go to a little house party parents will go drop their kids off to those. But, if you have something positive you don’t always get the full participation that you should receive. Consider the fact of how times have changed, how things are happening right now before our eyes,” said Reid.
Rouse says parents should be involved in their child’s affairs from the beginning and take action right away. Rouse says parents are often involved in their child’s welfare when they are younger however; parents tend to fade in the background as their child ages. This is dangerous behavior as children tend to need their parents more as they age.
“I can’t stress that they [parents] need to get involved day one, before day one,” said Rouse. “We find that in our elementary schools parents are very involved but once they get to middle school and high school they kind of step back because they think the kids are older. And if anything that’s when they need to be more involved because kids are making decisions and doing things that parents need to know. As a parent when you get that gut feeling that something isn’t right you should not hesitate to contact the school.”
But the responsibility is not just on the parents. Reid says it is important for students to effectively communicate with their teachers problems that they are having in school. Reid says students should know the difference of what should be discussed with their teacher and when parents should get involved.
Even with the new programs implemented in schools students still have outside influences that cause them problems. Rouse says that the biggest threat to students today is social media. Rouse says students are bold when making comments online and this causes a problem when they return to school.
“A lot of things that has happened after school comes back to school. Who’s doing what, who likes who and they tend to say more on a Facebook page than they would say to somebody face to face,” said Rouse.
Rouse says parents need to monitor their child’s social media content and students should be careful as to what they put online.
Rouse says that the new disciplinary programs implemented in the school are having a positive impact. Rouse says school suspensions have gone down in the last year.
Rouse says the most important thing a student can do to protect themselves is to tell someone right away if there is a problem and to not let the problem escalate.
“Students need to feel comfortable reporting something and knowing that when they report it’s confidential. When they know something’s going on they need to tell an adult so we can be proactive and instead of reacting to the situation,” said Rouse. 
This story was printed in the November 3 - November 16 edition.

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