School, Interrupted Part 2: The Last Classroom On The Left

School, Interrupted Part 2: The Last Classroom On The Left

3:20pm Jan 16, 2020

Jeff is a high school student. For the past semester, he’s been sent to the in-school suspension classroom multiple times. In his case, it’s because he’s been tardy, but there are multiple reasons why Jeff -- or you -- might end up in the in-school suspension (ISS) classroom. Maybe you were wearing inappropriate clothes, or you were simply being disruptive and your teacher couldn’t put up with you anymore, or maybe you were caught trying to skip school. No matter the reason, the end result is the same: you are being removed from the classroom and being deprived of instruction time.

Before going too far down the in-school suspension rabbit hole and Jeff’s story, it’s worth remembering how we got here.

In 1975, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in Goss v. Lopez that schools could not suspend students without a hearing. In that case, the court found that suspension without due process violated the student’s rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This was a major victory for student rights, and in particular for African American students who, at the time, were being suspended at a disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts (and data show they still are . . . but that’s a subject for a different story). 

All of the sudden, Goss v. Lopez made suspending or expelling a student a much more difficult and challenging process. Schools everywhere would have to give the student sufficient notice, hold hearings with an impartial three-person panel, provide evidence, allow for the student to bring legal counsel, and so on. So, suspension and expulsion were reserved for more serious violations like assault or possession of illegal substances, and school boards were left with the task of finding a way to deal with minor, but still disruptive, offenses. In-school suspension was born.

According to Matthew Ellingwood from the North Carolina Justice Center, in theory, in-school suspension was a better alternative for the simple fact that students would remain under supervision.

“When kids are out of school and in unstructured environments, they can find themselves getting into more kind of, I guess what people will call delinquency. People with idle time or unsupervised are much more likely to get into trouble, potentially legal trouble.”

But that was just the theory. According to Ellingwood, there are no clear standards of what in-school suspension is across the state and this has led some schools, with more resources, to use this time to try to get to the root causes of the behavioral issues, while other less resourceful schools just keep the students in silence, staring at the wall for hours.

“There are a lot of sort of known programs that you can be trained on, on how to deal with conflict resolution between children or between young people. And, you know, if schools are given that training, you can use that time wisely during in school suspension, which we've seen in pockets and places across the state, and you're going to get much better results. And you'll see reductions in future suspensions and expulsions and student misbehavior,” explained Ellingwood.

All of this brings us back to Jeff. For the past couple of months, Jeff has been late to class. Maybe he doesn’t have an alarm clock, or maybe he cannot afford batteries for the one he has, or maybe his parents work long hours and it’s up to him to get his siblings ready for school. Whatever the reason might be, showing up to school 10 minutes past the bell means that Jeff has to spend the rest of the period at ISS.

“It's like you're mad because they're going to miss a little bit of instruction and the solution is for them is to miss a lot of instruction.” Explained Ellingwood.

What started as a way to address behavioral issues without completely removing the student from a learning environment, has slowly turned to a one-stop shop for anything that might disrupt the classroom -- without a clear plan of how to address the root causes of behavioral issues. Lack of resources, lack of training, and lack of data do not help, and according to Rebecca Cohen from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, it’s unlikely that things will get better any time soon.

“Schools are required to collect data on a large number of indicators. Academic and discipline indicators, but there are fewer requirements about data being collected on what's actually happening during that in-school suspension time. And so, as a result, we just, we just don't know that much about it.” 

This is what we do know: one-size-fits-all approaches hardly ever work out when it comes to behavioral issues.

If you have been to ISS and would like to share your experience, let us know. We want to hear from you! You can leave us a voice message here. We’ll feature some of your stories on our website.