It is a traditional school practice to use suspension and expulsion as possible punishments for students. But tradition does not justify bad practice; and I want to argue here that suspension and expulsion from schools or from educationally appropriate classrooms for all but certain kinds of behavior is excessive, inappropriate, counterproductive, and wrong. And I want to count as tantamount to suspension or expulsion the consignment of students to an "alternative school" that does not really teach them or give them an education appropriate to their ability and effort. Just putting a student, for punishment, in a building that is called a school but where appropriate teaching does not take place, is no different educationally from not letting him be in school at all.
There are some behaviors that do justify removal of a student from a classroom or school. Essentially they are anything that maliciously deters other students from being able to learn, whether it is serious classroom disruption or bullying, threatening, destructive, or violent behavior inside or outside of school that makes learning or active participation in a class difficult or impossible. That should not include the occasional humorous and tasteful wisecrack in class, a legitimate, polite, even if firm, intellectual challenge to a teacher’s point of view, or in some cases, the serious questioning of an issue that is important to students even if it is not necessarily germane to a particular course. It may be that a particular topic should not be discussed at a particular time, but it should not be an expellable offense to ask a serious question politely or to inquire politely when it will be discussed.
In addition, it is justifiable to remove students from some courses, such as academically advanced courses, if they cannot or will not learn the material.
But it is wrong to deny a student an appropriate education, or an academically earned degree, particularly in a public school, for legal behavior that has nothing to do with jeopardizing anyone’s learning – such as dress code violations, gum chewing, using a cell phone outside of class, or any of various other kinds of, often trivial, infractions that school officials use as a reason to suspend or expel students.
And it is also wrong to suspend or expel students from school for legal violations that have nothing to do with the educational process. Illegally buying alcohol or cigarettes for example at a local convenience store, or showing up drunk or stoned at an after-school event should be a legal or parental matter, and possibly, in some cases, a school administrative matter conducive to a fitting punishment, but not to a punishment that deprives a student of an appropriate education. There are plenty of legitimate punishments, some even fairly stringent or harsh, available to school officials without having to deny educationally appropriate opportunities for trivial or even serious, but educationally unrelated, offenses.
Throwing students out of school for wearing fashionable clothing that does not meet an outdated or unreasonably narrow dress code, or for chewing gum, for taking Ibuprofen, or for respectfully disagreeing with a teacher does not engender respect, or even obedience, by students for authority. It makes them despise and disrespect authority they consider to be dictatorial and unreasonable even if they obey it. Often they disobey and then do disagreeable acts to evade detection as when students in one school routinely ditched their gum onto the floor so they would not be caught chewing it and be suspended. At the very least, imperious authoritarianism by school officials just to pull rank or to “make an example of students” undermines any potential student good will and whatever voluntary extra efforts or contributions dependent on such good will that students might have made.
This is true even for authoritarian punishment that falls short of suspension; one student in Hoover was summarily given detention because his shirt tail had accidentally come out in back after he had sat in a classroom. The boy was unaware the shirt tail was out and when he walked past an administrator in the halls while changing classes, he was immediately charged, tried, and convicted by that administrator who took it as an intentional sign of felony disrespect.
When school officials argue that they are trying to teach a sense of responsibility, their actions often belie their words, and it could be more persuasively argued that schools are often so rule-laden, authority so callous and capricious, power so abused, and rules so rigidly and overzealously enforced that they delay emotional maturity rather than foster it. Bad administration encourages disrespect for authority because the authority students see demonstrated most often is petty, imperious, unreasonable, unnecessary, and oppressive. As rebellion, non-compliant students then often merely choose whatever outrageous, obviously anti-social behavior they can do that has not been excluded by a rule. And compliant students may merely be demonstrating a docility that should not be confused with emotional maturity or the ability to make wise or responsible choices in freer circumstances.
The central purpose of school is to educate students. To remove a student from classrooms appropriate to his or her educational needs and abilities for an offense that is not in any way educationally related and that does not threaten anyone else’s education or well-being, is a power no administrator and no school board should have. Their function and mandate is to provide appropriate education within their means, not to deny it without reasonable and just cause. While schools do not necessarily educate students as well as they should and could, they hardly should have the right to purposely deny appropriate education for offenses that have nothing to do with education. If a student has the intellectual capacity and successful effort in any class or curriculum and the decency toward his or her fellow classmates to allow them to learn, then totally unrelated behaviors should not justify his or her removal from that classroom. Otherwise suspension where important, cumulative material is missed and expulsion are disproportionate punishments because they have consequences for the students’ lifetime that far outweigh the consequences of the particular (supposed) transgression.
Finally, although there is no Constitutional requirement that laws or rules be reasonable, the method described in the Constitution for enacting laws can be understood as a way of ensuring reasonableness in law by requiring some relatively broad consensus of many segments of the public, not just as a majority, but as a majority of various cross-sections, depending on how representatives are chosen. And then, within certain constitutional parameters, the legitimacy of laws enacted by a legislature is determined by an independent judiciary. School boards, particularly appointed ones, do not necessarily provide community representation of the sort requisite for even trying to ensure that the rules they promulgate, or accept from administrators, represent the wishes of the citizenry. And then they decide the legitimacy or fairness of their own rules and punishments for violation of those rules themselves. As a citizen who supports public education appropriate to student capacities, I do not condone its denial to students for trivial or educationally unrelated offenses from which there is no independent recourse other than a court of law, which is an expensive and time-consuming remedy.