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Advocates fear suspensions could add to pandemic pain for vulnerable students

Administrators say they’re navigating difficult choices about school safety and student discipline in a year when children are reeling and acting out.
Illustration of a teacher with her head in her hands as students walk away looking discouraged.
Several advocates for student civil rights say they’re getting more calls this school year from parents concerned about discipline issues.Cornelia Li for NBC News

The list of challenges facing school administrators as they head into the new year is long and daunting: crippling staff shortages, nasty battles over mask-wearing, deep academic deficits, terrifying sickness and disruptive quarantines. 

On top of that, administrators are also navigating difficult questions about how best to respond to student discipline issues, including violence, which some educators say has been a growing concern this school year. 

“In the first nine weeks of school, we had more physical aggression in terms of fights than we probably had in the last maybe three or four years combined,” said Crystal Thorpe, the principal of Fishers Junior High School in suburban Indianapolis, who said her students had difficulty transitioning back to full-time in-person classes. 

Thorpe’s seventh and eighth grade students are not only reeling from trauma and loss related to the pandemic — they also missed out on social interaction at a crucial time in their development, Thorpe said, meaning they returned to school lacking skills like conflict management that they ordinarily learn from their peers. 

Thorpe issued an unusually high number of suspensions early in the school year — seven by the end of October, compared to none before Halloween the previous three years, she said — after her staff members broke up fights in the hallways, the cafeteria and by the buses. In one instance, she said, two girls who are normally friends started slapping each other in a dispute over potato chips. 

National data on suspensions and expulsions isn’t yet available for this school year. NBC News requested numbers directly from the nation’s 20 largest school districts, and the 10 that responded offered a mixed picture. Two of the districts — Palm Beach, Florida, and Wake County, North Carolina — reported a rise in suspensions this school year compared to 2019, while several said their numbers had fallen or remained flat. Others said they hadn’t compiled comparable figures. The Dallas Independent School District cut punishments by 80 percent since 2019 by softening its discipline policies in response to the pandemic and to past racial inequities in school discipline, sending students to new “reset centers” for misbehavior rather than suspending them. 

But several advocates for student civil rights locally and nationally say they’re receiving more calls this school year from parents concerned about discipline issues. These advocates said they’re also seeing more examples of students facing harsher punishments for relatively minor infractions, like vaping. 

Advocates for Children of New York, which helps students facing disciplinary action, reported 47 calls about student discipline so far this school year, a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period in 2019. The director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, a group that represents students there, said it has received 51 calls about long suspensions and expulsions this school year, up from 38 in the same period two years ago. 

That’s concerning, advocates say, given research showing that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of school or end up in the criminal justice system, and that Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities — the same students who’ve been hit hardest by the pandemic  — are disproportionately subjected to school discipline. 

Advocates worry that suspensions and expulsions could create yet another pandemic consequence for the nation’s most vulnerable kids and have called on schools to work with students who’ve already missed weeks or months of instruction during the pandemic, rather than punish them.

“There has to be this grace and compassion that’s extended to young people who have lived through the world since March 2020, this unparalleled event that all of us are still kind of sitting with and fully understanding,” said Andrew Hairston, the education justice director at Texas Appleseed, a civil rights organization. “It is a perilous moment for young people. If you’re approaching it with the same zero tolerance philosophy that has guided schools for 70 years, then you’re certainly going to see a number of fallouts from it.” 

Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he’s heard from members around the country that they’re seeing higher-than-usual rates of fights, drug use and other discipline issues and are struggling with how to respond. 

His members don’t want to suspend or expel students, he said, but they have limited resources to address the emotional causes of students’ behavior while also keeping their buildings safe. 

“These are deep problems,” Nozoe said. “You know, ‘We don’t have a place to live,’ or ‘My parents lost their job,’ or ‘My uncle died,’ or ‘I don’t have hope.’ These are not issues that you’re going to go to a counselor for 30 minutes and be done with. These are issues that are deep, and some of those issues are not resolvable at the school level.” 

Stephen Paterson, the principal of Kearsarge Regional Middle School in North Sutton, New Hampshire, created a “base camp” for the first two weeks of the school year to spell out expectations and routines and help students readjust to school.

“We took the approach at the start of the year that we had to reteach kids how to be in school,” Paterson said. 

His school has also used “restorative practices” in response to student misbehavior, focusing on teaching children about the consequences of their actions rather than punishing them, he said. His school hasn’t seen a spike in problematic behavior or suspensions, he said.

But educators note that some schools don’t have the staff, skills or resources to effectively respond to discipline challenges without conventional tools like suspensions, especially given staffing issues that have made it difficult for schools to hire enough counselors to serve students’ needs. Hiring issues have also reduced the number of aides available to monitor hallways and support students with disabilities. 

“Teachers and administration and staff are tapped out,” said Ruth Idakula, the program director for Dignity in Schools, a national coalition of organizations that push for alternatives to traditional school punishments. She said she recently polled 20 members of her coalition, many of whom reported an uptick in parent complaints about suspensions and expulsions. “People are burnt out, and they just can’t deal anymore.” 

Educators, meanwhile, are also under pressure to respond swiftly and decisively to safety issues, particularly after school shootings like the one that took place in Oxford, Michigan, on Nov. 30, when a student whom administrators decided not to suspend allegedly used a gun to kill four of his classmates. 

Oxford superintendent Tim Throne later defended the school’s decision to send the 15-year-old back to class despite concerns from teachers who found his violent drawings and writings, saying the student had no history of disciplinary infractions and appeared calm. Throne wrote that the school’s counselors had “made a judgment based on their professional training and clinical experience.” 

While school shootings are extreme situations, administrators must regularly make difficult decisions to keep their schools safe, said Thorpe, the Indiana principal who noted a sharp increase in student violence this school year. 

Sometimes, she said, that means suspending students. 

“Is sending them home the best, you know, unsupervised? No,” she said, noting that students might not be safe at home or might view suspensions as a reward, a chance to play video games. “But keeping them here in an agitated state where they are disrupting the entire school?” she asked. “That’s not the best answer either.”