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On Developing An Off-Site Alternative to School Suspension: A Professional and Civic Duty

By Dr. Luchara Wallace

In May 2014, a barrage of breaking news stories filled the air waves stating, “(Local) Public Safety officials believe a 15-year-old boy is responsible for the murder of a 13-year-old boy” (WWMT, 2014, “More Information Arises About Race St. Shooting, para. 1). This news report included a cellphone video showing the victim and the accused involved in an altercation three months earlier on a day where the victim was reportedly suspended from school and the accused was not in school due to an expulsion. As educators, community members, and other interested parties try to wrap their minds around incidences such as the one described above, one common sentiment remains, “This needs to stop.”

When I first heard about this story, I was gravely disturbed. Not only had it been revealed that another young life had been lost, but taken by another young person. Initially, I was not fully aware of the details, but upon further investigation, I learned the young man who had been murdered was a student at the school with whom I have actively been partnering for the past five years. He was one of mine. The news story suddenly became a very personal one. I knew the young man who had been murdered. Some of my students had the opportunity to interact with him as a part of their pre-internship placements. All I could think about was what could be done to prevent such a senseless loss of life from occurring again. It was important to consider the contributing factors when looking for a solution.

Although there are multiple factors that contribute to youth violence and crime (Farrington, 1998), the co-occurrence between (a) conduct problems in school that could lead to suspension and (b) engagement in violent crimes in the future is alarming. Morrison and Skiba (2001) highlight the most common infractions leading to suspension are not immediately the most violent in nature, in fact, they include defiance, disrespect, and insubordination. Sometimes the severity of the punishment is predicated more on the processes established at the school level, including, but not limited to, the process of referring students for discipline, the tolerance individual teachers have for certain behaviors, and disposition of receiving administrators, than a mandated set of infractions and consequences.

Upon speaking with several colleagues in the school district, we began to generate several ideas of what could be done in an effort to address the negative outcomes that are often associated with suspension. It was out of those initial conversations that we determined we needed an off-site alternative to school suspension. Not wanting to interfere with the school suspension process, and not wanting to be seen as pointing our fingers, we thought that an off-campus solution would allow us to fill the void that occurs when students are not in school due to a suspension.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, a series of conversations among multiple school district personnel, community members, and representatives from one of the local institutions of higher education helped to develop the idea of an off-campus solution, and the School Connection Center evolved into a viable solution. The purpose of the School Connection Center is two-fold: (a) to provide an off-site location for academic, social, and emotional supports to students separated from their K-12 school setting due to suspension and (b) to ensure when the student returns to school they are caught up with their school work and returning with strategies that will help them stay in school and less likely to be suspended again. The primary target audience for the School Connection Center includes those middle school students who engage in acts connected to higher suspension rates, such as, defiance, insubordination, disrespect, and may result in a 3-5+ day suspension.

The theoretical action plan for the model is based upon Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecological Systems theory and remains close to the spirit of Burns and Goldman’s (1999) wraparound principles of service delivery. The School Connection Center model has five primary components: (a) an intake meeting where the student and a responsible adult will discuss the incident leading to the suspension, any special needs and/or mental health conditions the student may have, and any delinquency activities that might assist School Connection Center staff in providing the best support possible for the incoming student; (b) academic support based upon the academic needs of the student, school assignments are completed and assessments are administered to determine the student’s current progress and provide supplementary support as needed; (c) emotional/social support where a social worker or therapist completes an inventory, potentially the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) or Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI™) that may contribute to the development of the plan for success and may include, but not be limited to, appropriate therapy and character development; (d) develop a plan for success that not only addresses the skills learned in light of the referring infraction, but also address long-term goals leading to a reduction in suspensions, and contribute to a positive trajectory that lead to graduation from high school; and (e) long-term follow-up where the School Connection Center staff connects with the sending school’s staff (principal or designee) to share the plan for success, report the work completed, and assess student outcomes. The process of incorporating a mechanism to connect families to needed supports and services is still being developed.

Although I am sharing this with you as a matter of fact, in full disclosure, I must say that this model truly is a work in progress and continues to evolve. Following a recent conversation with district leadership, we have been invited into the district! We have been asked to implement the model as a preventative measure for middle school students already known to have chronic rates of suspension. Our goal is to begin implementation Fall 2015. I am very excited about our prospects and the impact we can have on the students with whom we have the opportunity to come into contact. The story is obviously not over. Please stay tuned for future updates.

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Dr. Luchara Wallace is an Assistant Professor in the Special Education program at Western Michigan University. As a member of the faculty, Dr. Wallace has multiple opportunities to work with both undergraduate and graduate students preparing to become special educators. Currently, Dr. Wallace teaches the Learning Disabilities certification block as well as some of the Introduction to Special Education courses for non-majors. Her primary areas of research interest include determining effective ways of providing informational and emotional support to families of individuals with disabilities as well as utilizing advanced technologies to develop effective teacher training programs.

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