ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) — Katie Stone’s daughter was in second grade when she was suspended. She says after that suspension, her child learned how to get out of class.
“It was almost like my daughter was given the magic key to get home and, from then on, she knew how to leave school,” Stone said
Her daughter has cerebral palsy and had skin showing after using the restroom.
“I was told it was actually a sexual problem and she had revealed her naked self to the class — my daughter, who could not effectively pull up her pants all the way,” she said.
Stone took her daughter out of school. She is now homeschooled and in the 8th grade.
Stone is a child advocate and KUNM radio host of The Children’s Hour. She believes Albuquerque Public Schools suspends too many kids unnecessarily.
There are studies, in fact, that show Stone has a point. Suspensions, which seclude a child, can be damaging, making children feel like outsiders from the classroom. Moreover, some existing research shows suspensions are simply ineffective.
APS is now joining school districts across the country in taking a look at how it suspends kids.
“When I started looking at the data, I was surprised,” said Katarina Sandoval, APS associate superintendent for middle school education.
Figures provided by APS show the district handed down 17,772 suspensions last school year. More than half were suspensions students served at home.
Sandoval says the district has looked at the suspension numbers and plans to assign a teacher or educational assistant to supervise in-school suspensions at every middle and high school next school year.
“How can we guide that process so that it doesn’t end up in suspension is something that we’re working on,” Sandoval said.
APS suspends kids for infractions such as bringing a weapon to school, fighting or threatening a teacher. But the majority of suspensions are for disruptive behavior like talking back, refusing to listen and dress code violations.
APS would like to limit the number of suspensions, especially out-of-school suspensions.
“We can definitely do better,” Sandoval said.
Stone would like to force districts to do better. She helped propose Senate Bill 283 at the Legislature this year in Santa Fe. It would have put limits on restraining and secluding children. Stone says suspension is a form of seclusion.
Stone is also closely following the Keeping All Students Safe Act, introduced in the U.S. House. It’s aimed at reducing the number of kids suspended from schools by encouraging school districts to collect detailed information about disciplinary practices and by providing additional resources to school systems struggling with high suspension rates.
Betty Patterson, president of the New Mexico National Education Association, the state’s public school employees’ union, says schools need to take a closer look at suspensions. She says schools suspend too many kids. Patterson says out-of-school suspensions do not work because schools send kids to an empty home where they get in more trouble.
“Actual suspension — sending them home — rarely, rarely works unless you have a really tough parent at home that’s willing to take on that charge,” Patterson said. “I think we suspend too many kids. I think we need to look at other answers.”
According to the suspension numbers provided by APS, the district allowed middle and high schoolers to serve their suspensions in school the majority of the time, while elementary school kids are more often sent home to serve their suspensions. The district says elementary schools are less likely to have the staff needed to supervise those children.
“It’s harder on your budget of 300 to 400 students to come up with a staff member that can house an in-school suspension room,” said Toby Herrera, director of the APS Student, School and Community Service Center.
La Mesa, just east of the fairgrounds, had the most suspensions last school year of all APS elementary schools with 212. Del Norte at Montgomery and San Mateo had 891, the most among high schools. And Truman in Westgate Heights in Southwest Albuquerque took the top middle school spot with 1,644 suspensions last school year. In fact, that school year has been at the top, four of the past five years.
APS points out that Truman is the largest middle school in the state.
Out-of-school suspensions are meant for severe infractions in which students are a threat to themselves or others. When kids are misbehaving or acting up, the district tries to keep them in school. Sandoval says in-school-suspensions play a positive role in discipline.
Herrera also believes in-school suspensions work.
“I think you use progressive discipline. You try the least restrictive thing first,” she said.
APS says in some cases, suspensions are hard to avoid — the teens are tough years.
“They’re going through a time when they’re going through a rapid physical change, emotional change, they’re navigating friendships, conflicts and part of their development is being defiant,” Sandoval said.