Opinion: School suspensions must end

An argument for the Solutions Not Suspensions Act

UCG / Contributor

I was bullied a lot in the fifth grade. My mom encouraged me to stand up for myself, but I was physically smaller and weaker than my classmate bullying me, so I used my voice to tell my teachers, counselors, and other staff about the bullying. Their response was not helpful: they suspended my classmate for about a week and when he returned, the bullying only got worse. I felt even more unsafe and unheard than before. 

Looking back on the incident as a senior, it is clear to me that my classmate’s actions were a cry for help. Instead of getting the care he so clearly needed, he was labeled a troubled child, excluded from school, and denied the resources that may have helped address his problems. While you may see him as the villain in this story, I see him as a victim of the school disciplinary system that causes so much harm with the use of suspensions. 

Today, New York state is finally holding a hearing on the Solutions Not Suspensions Act (S.1040, A. 5691), after letting the bill sit in committee for nearly eight years. Each day, an average of 766 students across New York state are removed from schools through the use of suspensions, missing a combined total of nearly 1 million school days last year. There is no current limit to the number of days that a student can be suspended, so students can miss out on an entire year of school. To make matters worse, the Hechinger Report found that suspended students receive just an hour or two of instruction each day, which makes them fall far behind those of us still in class. 

Suspensions are not applied equally and are mainly used to remove Black and brown students, students with disabilities, students with low-income households, and LGBTQ students from their classrooms. Black students like me are as much as five times more likely to get suspended than my white classmates in New York City schools. Reasons for these suspensions can be for something as minor as a dress code violation or talking back, while white students who do the same thing just get told to do better next time. 

A suspension can change a kid’s life for the worse. Studies have shown suspensions fuel the school-to-prison and deportation pipeline. Suspended students are two times more likely to drop out of school than peers who have never been suspended. Young people who dropout of school are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile legal system within a year of them leaving school. Suspensions can also make mental health problems worse and increase the risk of depression and suicide. 

Our schools are supposed to be a safe place for us to learn and grow. But as I know firsthand, suspensions harshly punish students like the one who bullied me without helping them and subjecting their classmates to more trouble. That is why I am working with other students across the state to pass the Solutions Not Suspensions Act. The bill would help create fairer and more equitable schools by eliminating the use of suspensions for minor infractions, limiting the use of suspensions for students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, and shorten the maximum length of suspensions to 20 school days. The bill would use suspensions as a last resort rather than the first response, and use proven approaches like restorative and transformative justice to help address students' needs. 

My current high school uses restorative and transformative justice, and my classmates and I will use lessons we’ve learned from these methods for the rest of our lives. Our teachers help us to resolve conflict in a way that helps us learn from each incident, while still keeping us accountable to our actions. It has also helped me have compassion for the fact that my classmates are navigating the stress of high school, and whatever else is going on in their home lives. Sometimes that can mean they have a bad day at school. But one incident should not define how they are treated for the rest of their lives. 

It is clear that suspensions are not working, and it would be crazy to think we will see any changes in the future if we keep on using them. The Solutions Not Suspensions Act is a common sense approach that puts students’ needs first. Many elected officials in Albany support the bill, but keep putting politics above my generations’ future. I am calling on the New York State Legislature to pass the bill as soon as possible and get students the support and care they deserve now.