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AAP: School Suspensions and Expulsions May do More Harm Than Good

Getting suspended or expelled are the ultimate punishments doled out by school administrations, but do they help curb the bad behavior? In their new policy statement, published in the March 2013 issue of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics argued against zero-tolerance policies and recommended that student suspension or expulsion be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“There may be instances in which that’s the only thing you can resort to, just like there may be instances where only extreme surgery is going to benefit the patient,” says the policy’s senior author, Jeffrey H. Lamont, MD, FAAP. “But you wouldn’t resort to surgery for every case of appendicitis.”

Lamont says that out-of-school suspension and expulsion are outmoded since parents are likely to be away at work during the day. This means that a kid who gets suspended or expelled is now at home in an unsupervised setting, which defeats the whole purpose of the punishment. “A child that’s not supervised is far more likely to meet up with the very people and engage in the very activities that got him in trouble in the first place,” says Dr. Lamont.

Students who experience out-of-school punishments are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than those who do not, argues the AAP statement. High school drop-outs experience poorer health than the average high school graduate, and their life-expectancy is six to nine years shorter.

Lamont and the AAP are particularly adamant against school policies that do not take mitigating circumstances into account, such as bullying and unidentified psychological issues, when deciding whether to suspend or expel a student.  “What if a child has undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, or has a developmental delay that’s not recognized, so that the student doesn’t foresee the consequences of what he’s going to do?” says Dr. Lamont. “If you have a one-size-fits-all policy those children are going to be disproportionately at risk for running afoul of the policy, and they are going to suffer for it.”

So what can school officials do instead? The AAP recommends the decision-making framework School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support. According to Lamont, the framework fosters an environment in which expectations are made clear and consistent, and good behavior is recognized.  If a child has to be suspended, the suspension takes place in school so that he or she can still participate in productive and creative activities.

“It’s treating every child the way we ourselves want to be treated and teaching them that they have a right to be heard,” Dr. Lamont says. “Their actions may very well incur a punishment or a consequence, but it’s not with the intention of saying, ‘You are bad.’  It’s with the intention of saying, ‘You need to do better, and we’re going to help.’”

Has your child ever been suspended or expelled? Leave a comment.