Our experience in implementing an in-school suspension system.
When I first filled the role as Vice-Principal of Penticton Secondary, few decisions were clearer than what to do with students caught using or possessing drugs at school. A student caught in such an offence was given a 3-day suspension of they agreed to visit an outside drug counselling agency and was administered a 5-day suspension if they declined to seek counselling. I followed a fairly simple routine: bust student for drug use, question him or her, call parent, write suspension letter, and wait for the parent to pick the drug-impacted student. Those steps were pretty easy to follow, but the part that became increasingly difficult, was when I walked the student to the door to meet the disgruntled parent. I found myself saying something like:
‘I really hate saying this, and it is the least favorite part of my job, but you cannot be on our school property for the next 3 days.’
The problem was, I really did hate it. Too often I handed the student off to a parent who was not in a great frame of mind or position to deal with the situation. Too often the parent was heading straight back to work and I knew the student would be alone. Too often the student lamented the fact he or she would be missing class and would be even further behind when he or she returned. Too often I feared a violent or critical incident might ensue at the parent hand-off, or worse, after the parent and student had left the grounds. Simply stated, it did not feel right, and the more times I went through this process, the more I felt resigned that we [the school] were somehow missing the mark.
On days when I would send a student away for 3 to 5 days, I heard myself debriefing to my wife things like:
‘Every bone in my body tells me this is not the right course of action.’
‘I hope (Michael) is ok for the next 3 days.’
‘I wonder how we will every get (Susan) caught up after her suspension is over.’
One of the best days I can recall from my first year as a high school vp, was when I realised that I was not the only one questioning our suspension system as it related to drug-impacted and affected youth. The teachers who worked most closely with some of the students I suspended would cringe at the thought of losing contact with them, especially when they worked so hard to keep these students caught up. One day a few of us who had been questioning this practice went for lunch and began to share our frustrations. It became clear very quickly that there were obvious reasons why conventional, out-of-school suspension systems, were failing our most at-risk, drug-impacted and affected teens.
The moment an out-of-school suspension was given, the teen…
- fell further behind in his classes and was left in a position of returning with even less understanding of the material
- felt even more isolated from the school the longer she was ostracised
- was separated from the adults he most needed…at the time he most needed them
- ran the risk of being further stigmatized and labeled as a ‘drug kid’
- was able to partake in, or further entrench himself in, the very behaviours that led to the suspension (smoke up in a vacant house!)
- often set into motion plans to pull other students from class during the suspension period
Once we were able to articulate and isolate the reasons we had questioned our practice, we began to shift our paradigm around what we did with our at-risk sector – we were able to get around to building a new system. No matter which direction we took, our conversation seemed to come back to relationships. Our most drug-impacted students needed to be linked to positive adults in our school community and it was incumbent upon us to build a process accordingly.
We started with an inquiry question: