Nevada High School student Noah Christensen was one of the many who participated in pro-gun control walkouts last week. At the walkout, students distributed a paper with the phone numbers of local Congressmen, encouraging students to call. Christensen called Representative Mark Amodei, a Republican with a reputation for being pro-gun. When Christensen reached the Representative’s receptionist, he said that legislators should “get off their f**cking asses” and pass gun control legislation. Amodei’s office reported Christensen’s language to the school, which suspended Christensen for two days.
It was immature of Amodei’s office to report Christensen. While his use of swear words was not wise, it also wasn’t illegal or particularly harmful. I’m suspicious that Amodei’s reporting of Christensen had more to do with his protesting of Amodei than his use of swear words. I think that the office might not have reported Christensen if the swear words were used outside the context of a protest. That being said, Christensen’s high school has the right to punish students for inappropriate language. But suspension is an inappropriately harsh and counterproductive from of punishment.
According to the Journal of School Violence, suspension often exacerbates the problems that cause kids to act up. While Christensen’s suspension came from the in-the-moment anger of protest, many kids who act up do so because of emotional issues or academic struggle. Students who get suspended are at a higher risk for academic failure than others.
Suspension worsens this academic failure by keeping the student out of class. Missing school can increase your workload once you get back, since you now have to complete the work from the days you missed. Suspended students might also miss important lessons that they need to know for future tests and homework assignments.
The fact that suspension holds students perpetually behind academically can make them feel hopeless, encouraging them to fail academically and misbehave in class. This harm is increased when students are suspended for minor infractions, like when Christensen was suspended for swearing. Suspension for minor infractions sends the message that kids are unwelcome in school, perpetuating low self-esteem and academic insecurity.
The use of suspension as punishment also perpetuates racial inequality. A 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education found racial biases affect whether schools choose to punish students. Minority students are more likely to be suspended than white students for breaking the same rules. This means that the academic and emotional harm of a suspension is unfairly focused on minority students. Academic failure in children is correlated with higher rates of unemployment as an adult and an increased likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Since racially biased suspensions harm minority students’ academic careers, they could also exacerbate the financial and legal struggles that those students face as adults.
The intended message of a suspension is that education is a privilege, that students who show a lack of gratitude for education by breaking rules should lose that privilege temporarily. The problem with this system is that many students do not see school as a privilege, but rather as an obligation.
Suspension essentially gives students a vacation from school, which isn’t necessarily a punishment. It also relies on the assumption that parents will punish students who are suspended, making sure that they treat the suspension as a punishment. But not all parents are involved in their children’s lives. Many do not have the time to watch their kids during the school day, meaning that their kids are completely unsupervised when suspended.
As an alternative to suspension, schools could send kids to lunchtime or Saturday detention, and require them to see a tutor or counselor. When kids breaks the rules, they could benefit more from academic and psychological help than a suspension. Kids might be acting up due to a lack of self-esteem, problems at home or frustration with academics. Suspension intensifies these issues, making kids feel unwelcome at school and jeopardizing their future.