School leaders across our nation have opened their doors to welcome back students and educators after a difficult year, and they must be prepared to reimagine and re­­‑acclimate students and educators to the expectations of what it means to navigate and thrive in a formal school setting. For urban students of color, the unparalleled trauma from the pandemic compounds the issues for those who have historically experienced challenges with social discipline and authority. School leaders need to recognize and engage in root-cause analysis and restorative responses, even when called on to make the difficult decision to suspend a student.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the nation’s students had the autonomy to come and go from their at-home classrooms as they pleased, eat meals and snacks on their own schedule, play video games and peruse social media sites during class time, take bathroom breaks as needed, and take advantage of a level of freedom during the school day. This school year, students will be asked to dispose of many of the liberties they’ve grown accustomed to, which will present challenges as they struggle to adjust and adapt. Some of those challenges will be preceded by the students’ inability to self-regulate, which is a vital tool for academic success, emotional stability, and healthy social interaction. This lack of ability to self-regulate is one of the root problems that often leads to out-of-school suspensions.

The Research

As principals, many of us have experienced the national shift in policy and methodology—from zero-tolerance and exclusionary approaches, to discipline and intervention, to restorative practices that embrace capacity building around self-regulating and social discipline. Research shows that when students are suspended, they feel rejected from the community, as if they are outcasts, and often their behavior becomes worse, which leads troubled students to find more trouble. Therefore, popular belief dictates that suspensions are not the answer to addressing behavioral impasses. Still, as we all know, there are times when suspension is a necessary tool that principals must employ for the safety of the school. So, when faced with flagrant violations of the code of student conduct, what should we do?

A student’s academics must be the priority. According to a 2012 study by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, created for UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, high school dropout rates double and college enrollment falls by 50% with just one suspension. Many times it’s the children who are behind academically who are most often suspended. We must be aware that missing more school days will cause the child to become even more frustrated with academics. As the principals in our buildings, we must provide students with every opportunity to remain engaged in the academic process. Here are ways to support that engagement:

  1. Allow students to remain in school with an in-school suspension model or in a student success room. The room should not be used as a punitive measure, but should be used to allow students to reflect on their actions.
  2. If students are placed in out-of-school suspension, ensure that they have access to their classes through remote and virtual learning opportunities.
  3. Provide students a space outside of school—and outside of their homes—to do their schoolwork. For example, partner with a local Boys & Girls Club or a YMCA.
  4. Have after-school time slots reserved for suspended students to meet with their teachers.
  5. Most importantly, have a reentry process that allows the student an opportunity to reflect on their actions, give back to the school community what they took away by virtue of their choices, reconcile with those who were harmed, and regain positive stature with their peers and the school community at large.

As leaders of educational institutions, our jobs are to ensure that students are being educated, even when they’ve made mistakes. We must be restorative in our disciplinary practices.

Restorative Practices

You cannot attend any educational conference or workshop without hearing someone say that schools need to be “restorative.” What does that mean? What makes schools restorative in their practices? Is it circles and group time? Not necessarily. Restorative justice assumes the existence of what Theo Gavrielides, the founder and director of Restorative Justice for All, calls a “social liaison” that bonds individuals into a relationship of respect for each other’s rights and freedoms. Being restorative in our practice as school leaders is about the essence of how we perform our duties and responsibilities as they relate to our students and their families.

When a student is suspended, remind them that they are not their mistakes. When the student returns to school, plan a meeting with the student, parents, and administration to assure the student that the mistake is in the past and that the future will be brighter. To that end, it is imperative that teachers are supported in not antagonizing a child who has returned from suspension. We need to welcome our students back with open arms, let them know they are loved and forgiven for their mistakes, and make them feel like they are back in the family.

Restorative practices also provide students with an opportunity for self-​reflection. Helping students improve their self-regulation and self-​management skills is a key component of social-emotional learning and can help them better navigate common classroom challenges, including anger, anxiety, impulsiveness, academic challenges, and behavior issues. Restorative practices can vary from parent conferences in lieu of suspension, student academic intervention groups, mentoring groups, and after-school study hours. These measures allow students to meet and discuss their contribution to their mistakes. Many students will take the position that they did nothing wrong, so you might need to guide the reflections and facilitate the process with specific questions:

  • What did you do to contribute to this consequence?
  • What could you have done differently?
  • What will you do differently next time?
  • What are your goals?

Engaging in meaningful conversations with students lets them know you care about them and respect them individually, despite the disappointment. School leaders need to help develop social-emotional and cultural competencies that demonstrate to students how to become successful individuals in their communities, in addition to teaching academics.

Due Process

Being a school leader is one of the most challenging careers in the country. Serving as a school principal at the middle and high school levels is very complex, and there are always compounded stressors that impact our decision making. All principals know that disciplinary consequences can take up a great deal of their time. One school fight can take between two and four hours of a principal’s day if dealt with appropriately. As a result, sometimes principals may make missteps with the suspension process. We’ve observed principals through coaching sessions employ a broad-stroke methodology by simply suspending all the students involved in an incident—without due process.

Our judicial system entitles every citizen to the right to due process. This, in its most simplistic form, states that we look at an entire case before making a judgment; it also states that every crime will be punished case by case. Due process—although tedious—is the most important step in any suspension. Once all of the facts are presented, the district’s or school’s code of conduct should be the document that guides the consequences. Suspensions should always be treated with caution.

Before each suspension, everything must be examined: teacher statements, student statements, victim statements, audio/video documentation, social media accounts, and any other resource to ensure that the decision being made is the right one. The worst thing you can do is be a principal who suspends students without just cause, out of frustration, by being sloppy with your investigative process, or by lacking due process.

Ejecting a child from the school community should not be the first step; it should be the last option. The school is a microcosm of the real world, and as a community of adults, we do not always go for the harshest punishment for minuscule crimes. Suspension is the biggest consequence we have as school leaders, and, through experience, we know that suspensions don’t work when it comes to changing student behaviors. The best thing we can do as principals is create a culture of caring within our schools and let our students know that the expectation at school is that everyone will be successful. When we show students we care for them, it’s harder for them to act out in school because they don’t want to disappoint their family.

Marck Abraham, EdD, is the president of MEA Consultants LLC in Buffalo, NY. Karlton Johnson, EdD, is the principal of Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, FL; and Malik Small, EdD, is the principal of East New York Middle School of Excellence in Brooklyn, NY.