Perspectives on Student Suspensions

Despite its widespread use, empirical research suggests that suspension is ineffective, punitive, and a predictor of further social problems, such as substance abuse and crime. The proposed study will use qualitative methods to explore the beliefs of teachers and administrators regarding the rationale for and the impact of suspension in Western Australian secondary schools. Case studies will be conducted on three schools, two of which are currently trialing different programs to assist in both reducing suspensions and making them more effective.

The third school will be selected for its more traditional ways of dealing with students, and will have been identified by District Education Office staff as a school with a high suspension rate. One-on-one interviews will be conducted with teachers from different Learning Areas at each school, pastoral care staff, the Deputy Principal in charge of Student Services, and the Principal. After analysis of the data, the themes will be presented to the participants in focus groups for them to verify or refute.

It is hoped that by examining the reasons why school staff suspend students, viable alternatives and suggestions to improve practice may be created that are more well-supported by school staff. Schools have increasingly reported concerns with disruptive behaviour in class (Dettman, 1972; White, Algozzine, Audette, Marr and Ellis, 2001; Metzler, Biglan, Rusby & Sprague, 2001; Mukuria, 2002; Uchitelle, Bartz & Hillman, 1989). Disruptive behaviour can function as a major impediment to classroom learning (Slee, 1988).

In recent times, safety, violence, drugs and weapon use have been uppermost in the problems schools face (White, 2002; Skiba, 2000; Mendez, Knoff & Ferron, 2002). Events such as the shooting of staff and students by students in the United States (US), coupled with the media presenting incidences of school violence on a regular basis (Vavrus & Cole, 2002; Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 2001; Christie, Petrie & Christie, 1999), have contributed to schools feeling the need to increase the severity and intensity of their disciplinary practices (Fields, 2002).

In countries such as the US, zero tolerance policies have been adopted in efforts to decrease the prevalence of severe behaviour problems within schools (Skiba, 2000: Skiba & Peterson, 1999; Sughrue, 2003). In the US, mandatory suspension – and, in some cases, expulsion – may be imposed for behaviours such as bringing a weapon to school and gang-related activity (Skiba & Peterson, 1999). In some states, mandatory suspension has also been implemented for students who show open, ongoing defiance and continued disorderly or disruptive conduct (Sughrue, 2003).

Suspension has also been used as a consequence for behaviours such as truancy, lateness, disrespect and non-compliance (Skiba, 2000). The abolition of corporal punishment has increased the use of suspension as part of standard disciplinary practice and has been the cause of much debate among educationalists, human-rights activists, parents, and the general community (Parker-Jenkins, 1999; Slee. 1992; Seymour, 1992; Johnson, 1992; Hocking & Murphy, 1992).

In Australia, state educators have been encouraged to give more weight to suspension as a behaviour management strategy (Beazley, 1984; Louden, 1985). Perhaps as a consequence, suspension has now become a method of choice in dealing with disruptive behaviour (Hyde, 1992), and there has been a steady increase in the use of suspension for both severe and lesser behaviours (Slee, 1992; Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 2001; Atkins, et al. , 2002). Despite its increasing popularity, suspension is a moderate to strong predictor of students’ later disengagement with schooling (Skiba & Peterson, 1999).

Students who disengage from the school through suspension have been shown to be more likely to become involved in substance abuse and other activities that could lead to juvenile offending (Kilpatrick, 1998). There have also been questions as to the efficacy of suspension in producing behaviour change (Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Partington, 2001; Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 2001; Kilpatrick, 1998; Atkins, et al. , 2002; Bock, Tapscott & Savner, 1998; Vavrus & Cole, 2002).

Nonetheless, suspension continues to be used as a sanction for inappropriate behaviour throughout schools in the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and in all states of Australia, including Western Australia (WA). By examining the perspectives of teachers and school administrators on suspension, this study aims to examine why suspension continues to be used in schools despite the relative lack of evidence supporting its efficacy as a behaviour management strategy.