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LETTER: Don’t suspend unruly students, teach them

To the Editor:

Our schools engage in a daily struggle to educate our students. They struggle because students don’t make it easy: they act out, they get mouthy, they swear, sometimes they fight. Arguably, this is age-appropriate behavior; even if not, it’s not unexpected.

Still, the schools have to maintain order; they have to ensure an appropriate environment for learning and, even more important, they have to keep their students safe. So our Lewiston and Auburn schools, depending on the circumstances, assign detention, sometimes suspension. In Singapore, students are caned.

Previously, I unpersuasively wrote against suspending students from school; I was unpersuasive because, now several years later, our schools continue to employ this injudicious policy. My objection to suspension is that while it removes a disruptive student from the classroom, it cruelly sabotages the suspended student’s education and it increases the likelihood they will not graduate.

“Regular school attendance is essential to academic success. Because the process of education depends upon exposure to subject matter, continuity of instruction and class participation, absence from class is detrimental to student learning.” This is from the Auburn schools’ policy manual.

Out-of-school suspension isn’t effective; acting out is symptomatic of the student’s inability to handle stresses in their lives and their being overwhelmed both by school and by hormones. Suspension, which provides immediate results and ends the symptoms, does nothing for the original causes.

Thus, suspension is as sensible as sending prison inmates home because they bang their tin cups on the lunch tables. It ends the banging, pleases the prisoners, makes work easier for the guards, but disregards the reason the prisoners were there.

Students suspended because they were unruly and disruptive, their hormones stabilized by the passage of time, will mature, some will marry and have children and, when cleaned up, they will not be immediately distinguishable from the rest of us—except they’ll be uneducated. Sure, these students present a challenge to educators; if they were easy to teach, we wouldn’t have to send them to school.

In fairness to our schools, they sometimes use in-house suspension, but they should end out-of-school suspension completely. When students misbehave and must be separated from their classmates, instead of suspending their education, we should place them in a separate classroom and provide more class time, not less.

If the short-term issue of cost should now raise its ugly head, we must also consider the long-term costs of welfare and prison. In addition to the six-and-a-half hour school day, we could include afternoons and, if necessary, Saturdays. Let’s test them to determine if they are academically behind; if they are, then we should first accept that as adults, although we possess the authority, we may be the ones at fault. Accordingly, it would be wrong to use our authority to conceal our failures by sending them away. We should instead strive to turn our temporarily unruly students into scholars.

In Singapore, students from ages six to 19 may be caned. The instrument used is not as heavy as the one used in prisons, and the punishment is limited to no more than six strokes across the clothed buttocks, administered with the student bent over a chair or desk. Make no mistake: I am not advocating that we cane our students.

But if forced to choose only between suspension and caning, considering the life-long consequences, I would consider suspension the worse choice.

Dick Sabine


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