Some kids have returned to in-person learning only to be kicked right back out

Kesi Hatten’s daughter received her first suspension in sixth grade. She was being bullied, and the bullying escalated into a fight, Hatten said. Over the years, the girl, who is now 15, was suspended at least five times, by Hatten’s count — until the coronavirus pandemic brought a halt to in-school learning.

“Everything was great when it was remote, because there was no interaction with these kids on a school level,” Hatten said. Her daughter, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, learned from the living room couch or dining room table, and there was no chance for altercations with her peers in the hallway or on the bus. Her online coursework gave teachers no reason to take issue with her classroom behavior.

But in October, less than two months after returning to in-person learning in Sacramento, California, she was suspended again. Hatten said she got into a fight with another girl on the bus after school and received a three-day suspension. The consequence was an unwelcome reminder that the pandemic isn’t the only thing that can keep her from the classroom.

“There’s a lot that goes on with these children when they miss school,” Hatten said. “And three days was a lot to miss.” 

Suspensions and expulsions plummeted during the 2020-21 school year, as most school districts closed their buildings and put instruction online to slow the spread of Covid. But despite widespread recognition of the need to focus on students’ mental health during the trauma of the pandemic and growing dismay at the academic consequences of being locked out of classrooms, families and advocates around the country say they have seen a return to exclusionary discipline, which removes students from the classroom as a consequence of their behavior.

Although national data on discipline for the current school year isn’t expected to be public for several years, The Hechinger Report requested data from a dozen medium and large school districts around the country and found that in some of them, exclusionary discipline is down, even way down. But in others, suspensions and expulsions are approaching pre-pandemic levels or exceeding them.  

The Oakland Unified School District in California logged 768 suspensions through mid-November, according to the district’s chief of staff, Curtiss Sarikey. At that pace, Sarikey said the district will probably have more suspensions this year than it did pre-pandemic. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, 4,402 students were suspended from the start of school through Dec. 1. That’s higher than the district’s fall 2018 numbers and a slight drop from 2019. In Denver, on the other hand, districtwide data shows that suspensions were down by 55 percent in fall 2021 compared with fall 2019, though 1,000 of Denver’s 92,000 students were suspended in the first four months of the school year. (The Sacramento City Unified School District, where Hatten’s daughter received her suspension, said it was unable to provide this year’s data.)

In some ways, the return to exclusionary discipline is a predictable outcome of the chaos of the pandemic. Teachers and administrators nationwide are stretched especially thin. Staffing shortages are contributing to and being compounded by teacher and administrator burnout. At all grade levels, veteran teachers describe worse student behavior than they’ve ever seen.

Most students went a year and a half without regular interaction with large numbers of their peers. Their social skills atrophied or, at the very least, stagnated. And they were thrust back into learning environments full of rules. Students always require an element of re-socialization following long summer breaks, but pandemic school closures created an unprecedented challenge. Add to that the trauma of the pandemic itself — the fear and anxiety, the closeness to illness and death, and the financial strain on families caused by a disrupted economy and society.

Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, a collaborative convened by the National Center for Youth Law, saw the influx in federal dollars for Covid relief as an opportunity to make schools more supportive for students. She said schools could have invested in staff training, hired more counselors and generally shifted toward a more trauma-informed, restorative approach to serving students. But early accounts of how schools have spent the money have been disappointing, she said.

“Certainly the anecdotal evidence is that too many schools and districts did not prepare adequately and are not providing the supports and environments … these newly and extremely disadvantaged and traumatized kids need in order to learn,” Rollin said.

Related: How the pandemic has altered school discipline — perhaps forever

Darryl White is an educational consultant who works with school districts throughout California and chairs the Black Parallel School Board, a community organization that advocates on behalf of Black students in Sacramento. He said that as soon as schools reopened, he started hearing about behavior problems and fights all over the state, particularly in urban districts.

“Districts seemed to be caught off guard,” White said. “And they shouldn’t have been.”

Anticipating a surge in misbehavior with the return to in-person learning, mental health professionals and juvenile civil rights advocates started sounding the alarm this past summer about the potential for an overreliance on exclusionary discipline. In September, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund released a report recommending school districts institute a moratorium on all suspensions and modify school discipline policies to be trauma-informed and supportive.  

District data shows that just 37 students were suspended from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in North Carolina, during the 2020-21 academic year, when schools were closed because of Covid-19. But as schools like this one reopened, suspensions have become more common, even surpassing pre-pandemic levels districtwide. Credit: Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report

Some districts appear to be doing just that. The Dallas Independent School District is in the middle of a multiyear effort to rethink school discipline. In 2017 it banned suspensions for students in kindergarten, first and second grade. In June, it expanded the reform districtwide for all but the most serious offenses. This school year, students who might otherwise have been suspended are being sent to “reset centers” focused on restorative practices that aim to address the root causes of the behaviors that led to disciplinary action in the first place. The students still lose class time, but Nina Lakhiani, a media relations representative, wrote in an email that the initiative is “part of an effort to do away with an antiquated discipline system that district leaders say does not work for students of color, particularly Black students.”

Dallas’ changes are part of a wider movement away from exclusionary discipline due in part to its disproportionate impact on some groups of students, including Native American students and students with disabilities along with Black students. Black girls, like Hatten’s daughter, face the starkest disparities: During the 2017-18 school year, the last for which there is nationwide data, Black girls made up just 7 percent of all girls in public schools but 45 percent of girls who were suspended.

Dallas’ effort also comes amid a growing recognition that exclusionary discipline doesn’t work. Studies show not only is it ineffective at improving students’ future behavior, it can also do the opposite. Researchers have further found evidence that suspensions lead to lower academic outcomes and higher dropout rates, and that students who attend schools with high rates of exclusionary discipline — even if they are not suspended themselves — have lower reading and math achievement than those who attend schools with low rates, a finding that researchers attribute directly to the punitive environment.   

“There is no question in the research in the field,” said Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who studies school discipline. “Suspending kids for behavior challenges does not, in general, do anything to improve and often increases whatever the behavior was that led to the suspension.”

District data shows just three students were suspended in California’s Oakland Unified school district during the 2020-21 academic year, when schools were closed because of Covid-19. But this year, high schools like this one have reopened and suspensions are expected to surpass pre-pandemic levels. Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report

The Oakland Unified School District has spent the last decade trying to shift away from exclusionary discipline after the Obama administration investigated the extreme overrepresentation of Black students among those suspended. The district invested heavily in a restorative justice program that emphasizes building relationships and aims to address the root causes of student misbehavior. In 2011-12, the year before its agreement with the Obama administration’s Office for Civil Rights, Oakland logged 6,134 suspensions, according to state data. During the 2018-19 school year, the last one uninterrupted by the pandemic, it logged 2,422 — a 61 percent drop.

But this fall has brought a reversal of the trend.

District records show Oakland Unified has poured more money into its restorative justice program this year, boosting its budget to $3.04 million after two consecutive years of cuts. Schools, though, haven’t been able to keep suspensions down.   

Elmhurst United Middle School is among the district’s campuses suspending more students than it did  pre-pandemic. And Principal Kilian Betlach said he went a step further than the district’s own budget increase for restorative justice by using additional federal dollars allocated to help schools recover from Covid-19 to hire a case manager. “We staffed to match the need,” he said.

“You can’t do restorative justice if you don’t have time,” he added. “It takes five minutes to fill out a suspension form, but it might take an hour and a half to really mediate a conflict. You need staff.”

Elmhurst United serves students who live in “a really challenging part of Oakland, and even a really challenging part of East Oakland,” Betlach said. About 92 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of family poverty. Student aggression is way up, Betlach said. His middle schoolers, stuck in isolation, didn’t have to practice staying calm when facing adversity, be it academic or social. They missed almost 18 months of social skills development and all the coaching teachers do to keep them in line in the controlled chaos of the school environment.

“Districts seemed to be caught off guard. And they shouldn’t have been.”

Darryl White, chairperson of the Black Parallel School Board in Sacramento

For certain offenses like carrying weapons or drugs, suspensions are mandated by California law. Betlach said there are other cases in which he considers suspensions necessary for students and parents to see that actions have consequences. But he tries to cushion the suspension with restorative practices — mediating conflicts that led to the discipline and designing reentry plans so students have a more productive return to school.

Still, every suspension means missed learning time. Researchers at the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA estimated that California schoolchildren collectively lost 763,690 days of instruction time during the 2016-17 school year. Middle schoolers, they found, lose the most learning time to suspensions.   

Betlach had hoped that January might offer a chance for a “restorative restart” in the return to in-person learning, with more time for community building rather than constant, desperate attempts to simply keep Covid at bay. Now omicron is tearing through California.

Related: When typical middle school antics mean suspensions, handcuffs or jail

Micere Keels, the University of Chicago associate professor, founded the Trauma Responsive Educational Practices Project in 2016 to give teachers the skills to approach student misbehavior with a less punitive mindset. Before the pandemic, she trained educators working with children who live in violent communities. In her program, educators learn how traumatic experiences affect kids’ brain development and how to identify the behaviors that stem from such trauma. Importantly, they practice new responses to classroom misbehavior, helping transform cycles of discipline, suspensions and expulsions. The goal for TREP educators is to use evidence-based, developmentally supportive practices that prioritize keeping kids in the classroom, engaged in their lessons.

Since few states require that students be given access to class material they miss because of a suspension, keeping them in school in the first place is the only way to guarantee they have a chance to learn.

Keels has been surprised to find how little most teachers she has worked with know about normal child development. Finding out that frustrating behavior is developmentally appropriate changes the framing for teachers, helping them step back and craft lessons around problem-solving, for example, instead of disciplining a child for making irrational or damaging decisions.

While some districts have limited exclusionary discipline this year to better support students’ social, emotional and academic needs after pandemic-related school closures, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in North Carolina, suspensions this year are exceeding pre-pandemic levels, according to district data. Credit: Kelly Field for The Hechinger Report

Demand surged for Keels’ training after the pandemic forced schools everywhere to serve students experiencing trauma. Yet even districts with thorough training programs in place have had a hard time putting theory into practice, according to Keels.  A big part of the problem has been teacher mental health:  Teachers started the school year exhausted by their own experiences during the ongoing pandemic.

Keels has been working with a group of district leaders grappling with the challenges of school reopening and said they had to pause discussions about what students need to focus on teachers.

“We need to improve staff well-being, recognizing that many of the discipline challenges staff are having are because they themselves are coping with so many of their own stressors,” Keels said. “If the adult is distressed and dysregulated, it’s going to be hard for them to manage student stress and dysregulation.”

Related: Restorative justice is about more than just reducing suspensions

Sydney Chaffee, a ninth grade humanities teacher at Codman Academy, a charter school in Boston, already felt the toll in October. Like many schools around the country, Codman Academy has tried to offer its staff members a release valve. The school turned professional development days into free days for teachers to attend to their own needs and added extra vacation days around Thanksgiving.

Burbio, an online platform that tracks school openings, reported in mid-November that more than 2,500 schools had closed for at least one day to support staff mental health. While these closures have been difficult for parents who rely on schools for child care, Chaffee said they have been critical to ensure kids see the best versions of their teachers.

In Sydney Chaffee’s ninth grade humanities class at Codman Academy, a charter school in Boston, students have access to “fidget tools” to help them release energy when they get antsy. Students who can’t stay focused on their work risk getting sent out of class. Credit: Image provided by Sydney Chaffee

“The best versions of us can look at a kid behaving in a certain way and approach it in a curious way — Why is the kid doing this? What does the kid need?” said Chaffee, a 2017 state and national Teacher of the Year. “Everyone is so on edge, it’s really hard for a lot of people to do that kind of thinking.”

That’s exactly what Hatten wants from educators in the Sacramento City Unified School District. She said suspensions should be considered a last resort and that educators should strive to find out what is contributing to student behavior and address any root problems before they spiral into incidents that call for suspensions.

Al Goldberg, the district’s communications manager, said via email that “exclusionary discipline shall be imposed only when other means of correction fail to bring about proper student conduct.” But Hatten said she doesn’t see nearly enough focus on addressing kids’ needs to prevent misbehavior, especially as they’ve returned to school in such extreme circumstances.

“Yeah, that’s asking a lot,” Hatten said, “but those kids should be worth it, or what are you there for?”

This story about exclusionary discipline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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