As school administrators grapple with how to establish school discipline, and avoid excessive use of suspensions, Donaldson Middle School in Louisiana takes an approach that motivates students and parents.
In the fall of 2016 administrators at Donaldson were facing rising suspension numbers and an increasing sense that they weren't helping the students who needed the most support, reports The Advocate. Assistant Principal Paul Sampson happened upon a solution that he brought to his colleagues: "reverse suspensions." Essentially, if you're a kid who is frustrated by school and would rather not be there anyway, suspensions aren't so bad. Act up, go home for a couple of days, and then come back to school and do the same. A reverse suspension flips this paradigm. When a student doesn't meet Donaldson's behavior expectations, administrators contact the parents, who must shift their schedules to come in and spend a large portion of time in class with the student.
"Instead of sending them home with mom and dad, mom and dad come to school with them," summarized Principal Daryl Comery. The school expected parents to be frustrated with the extra burden, but anecdotal evidence points to the contrary.
Devin Wright, a math teacher, speaking to local news station KLFY, said: "Sometimes, there was a sense of maybe we're attacking the child or maybe we don't have the best interest of that child . . . When they see us being intentional about redirecting them and giving them those chances, parents really were able to buy in.” Comery backed this up, saying, "Our parents are our biggest advocates. They're on our side." He also added that the new suspensions are an effective deterrent as middle school students are particularly averse to their parents spending time with them in class.
The reverse suspensions were piloted in the 2016–2017 school year, and have been fully implemented this year. "Suspensions fell from 247 at the end of the 2016 fall semester to 156 at the end of the 2017 fall semester," The Advocate reported.
The approach hasn't always been easy. It can be difficult to match up parents' schedules, and sometimes the school has had to figure out a transportation solution, but going the extra mile has strengthened the bonds between Donaldson and its parents.
The School Cultures and Student Formation Project of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture reports in The Content of Their Character that strengthening connections between school and home is important, not just for addressing behavior problems, but also for the long work of building character. Editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write, "There is considerable evidence that strong social support contributes crucially, if not decisively, to [students'] success in school, whether that support comes from parents and family, youth organizations, or religious communities. The thickness of social ties also bears positively on the formation of a stable self-identity and, by extension, a child's moral character."
Where those social ties don't exist, or have broken down, a well-implemented reverse suspension program may help—but not because it is punitive to the parent or child. Wright's comments on parent buy-in, when they see first-hand the lengths to which the school is going to support their child, echo this.
Assistant Principal Paul Sampson highlighted that after the school instituted its reverse suspensions, "we expected the parents to be upset with us, but actually, they were upset with the kids. We don't have many repeats."
Researchers at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and Duke Law School have published a guide, "Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline," for administrators looking for ways to avoid a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline.