Lexington's Dunbar High School drastically cuts down on suspensions under new program

jwarren@herald-leader.comOctober 20, 2013 

Dunbar High School in Lexington is experimenting with a program in which it no longer suspends students from school for most rules violations.

Officials at Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School are experimenting with a program in which they no longer suspend students from school for most rules violations.

In the past, student violators were sent home for five days or more, where they might spend most of that time watching TV, hanging out at the mall or getting into more trouble.

Now, Dunbar requires those kids to serve their punishment in school under close supervision, keeping up with their classroom work and receiving interventions that could help them avoid future trouble.

"It isn't easy," principal Betsy Rains said. "Students who have been in the program come out and say, 'I don't want to go through that again.'"

Early results look promising, she said.

Two months into the school year, 25 Dunbar students have committed rules violations that previously would gotten them suspended from school, according to Rains.

Instead, all of them were placed in the new alterative program, which provides punishment but no suspension.

No Dunbar student has been suspended this school year, Rains said.

Dunbar is the first Fayette County public school to try alternative approaches to suspension.

But Fayette schools Superintendent Tom Shelton — a strong opponent of out-of-school suspension — said he was considering recommending that the school board adopt a district-wide policy against suspensions.

"I'm very excited about what they're doing at Dunbar," Shelton said. "To me, suspending a child out of school is a completely outdated means of punishment.

"It's taking kids out of school, when school is exactly where they should be. It only compounds the problem."

Suspending students for getting into trouble has long been routine policy in countless schools nationwide. Many critics argue that the practice doesn't work and that it disproportionately affects minority students.

A report this year by the National School Boards Association and other groups found that 3.3 million children were suspended from U.S. schools at least once during the 2009-10 school year. Some large districts suspended 18 percent or more of their students, the study found.

Of those suspended, black children were three times as likely to be suspended as their peers. Among all races, about 13 percent of students with disabilities were suspended, roughly three times the rate for youngsters who were not disabled, according to the report.

Dunbar began experimenting with alternatives to out-of-school suspension during the 2012-13 school year and has expanded on that approach this year, according to Rains.

The alternative program provides various levels of punishment, depending on the type of rule violations involved, she said.

For example, a student who gets into fights could be referred to the Suspension Alternative Placement program, or SAP.

Students in SAP can be required to arrive for school early each day and work in a room under the supervision of a certified teacher away from other students. Classroom work and assignments are brought to the student for completion. The student also might receive counseling about anger and aggression, or watch videos about conflict resolution. Students typically spend up to five school days in SAP.

More serious violations — such as using alcohol or drugs — could send a student to Dunbar's Temporary Alternative Placement, or TAP, program for up to 10 days. In addition to being confined to a room for the day, TAP students might receive counseling or mandatory drug screening or be required to perform community service work.

Serious violations like possessing a weapon still can get a student suspended at Dunbar, but Rains said eliminating most suspensions seems to be working, based on early results.

Dunbar suspended students 42 times from August through October 2011, according to Rains. During the same period last year — when the alternative program was just starting — there were 36 suspensions and 14 repeat violations, she said.

This year, 25 Dunbar students who could have been suspended for their violations were sent to TAP or SAP, she said. Only two of them broke the rules again.

Rains said suspending students from school might have made sense years ago. "When you got in trouble at school, you got in more trouble when you got home," she said. "But things are different today."

Now, with many single-parent households, suspended students might go home to an empty house. Unsupervised, they could get into more trouble, Rains said, and they probably don't spend much time thinking about education.

"You can't learn," she said, "if you're not in school."

Shelton agreed, contending that students are the ultimate losers in school suspensions.

"A lot of students that get suspended probably are already disengaged from their education," he said. "Suspending them just reiterates their belief that school isn't the place for them. Instead, we should be doing everything we can to engage them."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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