Suspend judgment: keep kids at school

Justine Ferrari, National education correspondent
From: The Australian
June 18, 2012

SUSPENDING students from school for bad behaviour is counterproductive, with students who have been suspended twice as likely to be excluded again in the next 12 months.

Research by Australian Catholic University professor Sheryl Hemphill found about 6 per cent of students in Years 6-8 have been suspended, rising to 12 per cent of Year 10 students.

"Kids who are suspended just keep getting suspended. It doesn't stop the behaviour that resulted in the suspension, it almost sets them on a pathway more likely to lead to suspension," she said. "The risk for students who are having trouble maintaining engagement and staying at school is that suspension starts to help them move out of school."

As part of a series of reports on problems in our nation's schools, The Australian has found that suspended students were 50 per cent more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour and 70 per cent more likely to commit a violent act in the next 12 months.

Professor Hemphill said the policy of excluding students from school as punishment for bad behaviour sent a mixed message: every child must attend school, except on some occasions.

"It's so contradictory to everything else we're trying to do," she said. "We're trying to keep kids in school longer, we know the positive benefits of keeping them connected to further study and training for employment.

"Suspension doesn't fit with the current policy environment, a lot of which promotes connection with education, because suspension is potentially a way of cutting off students."

One man critical of blanket suspension policies in mainstream schools is Peter Chalkley, who heads the McAuley-Champagnat Program, a stand-alone unit of Notre Dame College at Shepparton in northeast Victoria that deals with the results of suspension policies.

The unit takes in students unwanted by other schools. About 60 per cent of Mr Chalkley's students are boys, most referred from surrounding government schools with a history of suspension and expulsion or even a record with juvenile justice.

"We talk about ourselves as a school of second and third and fourth chances," he said.

"We are dealers in hope, offering hope and a way forward to this group of young people."

Mr Chalkley said his experience suggested suspending and expelling troubled and troublesome students could compound their difficulties rather than help them. "The focus in our welfare and discipline policy is certainty, not severity. It has to have a redemptive element, offering young people a way forward," he said.

In cases of violence or physical assault, Mr Chalkley said he would not suspend or expel students. The action would be treated seriously but the process would focus on apology and a process to make the student take responsibility, to teach them about managing their behaviour.

Mr Chalkley said the school would ask students to stay home for a day or two for the purpose of gathering information about an incident, before they returned to the school to take responsibility for their actions.

"We see it more as a time out as a consequence for behaviour," he said. "My hope would be that our staff have some pretty good skills in defusing what could be a tense situation before it got to this stage."

With 60 students and 17 staff, Mr Chalkley said the unit -- which bases fees on a parent's capacity to pay, so some pay nothing -- had classes of only 10-12 students and the ability to plan individual programs for each student.

Mornings are occupied by literacy and numeracy, and in the afternoons the students pursue their interests in elective subjects ranging from sport to tap dancing, learning to drive, cooking and sewing, drawing and design, zumba and martial arts.

Some students start by attending for only a few half-days a week and over time move to full-time attendance.

The school is analysing where its students over the past six years have gone after leaving, and Mr Chalkley said some returned to mainstream schools while most went on to further training at TAFE and a part-time job.

During the selection process, clear goals are set for the students, which ensures they achieve some success early.

"Most of the students who come here have experienced failure in the mainstream setting, either overtly or covertly. They've been told they don't belong, they're not worthy.

"When we first moved to our new facilities about two years ago, brand new purpose-built facilities, some of the kids said 'We don't deserve this'."

Suspension policies differ from state to state, and from public to private schools, and only three states -- NSW, Queensland and Western Australia -- report suspension rates.

In NSW, an average of 1.6 per cent of students a year receive a "long suspension", up to 20 days, with the majority being students in Years 7 to 10, but 20 per cent are primary school students.

The rates have remained stable for the past seven years, with just under half of all long suspensions being for violence while about 40 per cent are for persistent misbehaviour.

In Western Australia, an average 4.5 per cent of students have been suspended over the past four years, mostly for physical assault or intimidation.

In Queensland, suspension rates have risen significantly over the past decade. Long suspension rates rose from 1.5 in every 1000 students in 2002-03 to 3.7 per 1000 last year.

Short suspensions also rose, from 17.4 students in every 1000 in 2002-03 to 28 last year.