maple leaf 8-11. Why Don't Suspensions Work For Most Native Students?

(Not all reasons apply to every student)

1. When students are sent home, they often see it as being a holiday, or break, from school. They're glad to be "out of the battle zone".

2. When students are sent home, they are not receiving an educational program. Even if work is sent home, they are angry and will probably not do it.

3. It creates a "them" (school) and "us" (students) mind-set in the students which does not lend itself to a positive school climate. School becomes viewed as a hostile, or unwelcoming place, resulting in deeper rifts. Remember, the way a person sees themselves is way more important to that person, than how you see them. If they see themselves as helpless, victimized, etc., which is often the case when they are expelled, they will create a strong negative defense towards that environment. It doesn't matter a whole lot, to the student, the reasons behind the expulsion.

4. It does not create a climate of confidence, self-esteem building, or a sense of self-worth. It does exactly the opposite. Suspensions are counter-productive to educating most students. The message often received by the suspended student is, "You are not worth the time and/or energy," or, "You're no good". This is not the message the school intended to send.

5. When a First Nations student is sent home, an important, but unhealthy message is often received by the parents. This unhealthy message is not the one the school intended. The school wanted the student to come to terms with an unacceptable behavior. But he message received by the parents unfolds something like this.... Through years of negative school experiences, many First Nations parents develop a "bad image" of schools. When they have to go to see the principal, in the school, many of these feelings surface, and the message sent to the parent is one of:

- being a failure as a parent,
- reinforcement of the negative feelings of their school experience
- a sense of helplessness because their child is "going down the wrong path",
- negative feelings towards authority, and specifically the school, and
- a sense of frustration at not knowing how to deal with a system that is part of the larger Canadian society, of which First Nations people do not have any perceived control over.

Thus, when a Native student is sent home, in all likelihood, what the parent experiences is not one isolated incident, but all the abuse they suffered at the hands of the school system comes flooding back. They become revictimized by the school system, and this revicitimization causes a further distrust of the school. The results are either withdrawing or fighting. Very seldom does it result in what the school is after, which is parental support for the school in dealing with an inappropriate behavior.

6. Perception is also an important factor. Many members of the Native community sees student suspension as a sign that the school's discipline system is not working properly. This is mainly because most Native people don't see this type of consequence as being effective. They would rather address the negative behavior in other ways. Suspending someone for doing wrong is not a "Native way of doing things".

7. It creates in students a sense of powerlessness. How students see the event is critical because they construct their own reality, which can be vastly different from what the teacher/principal sees.

If Suspensions Don't Work, What Are the Alternatives?

1. Disrespectful behavior from students, or teachers, is unacceptable. Something must be done. When issues reach a suspension stage, often problems exist at various levels between student/home/school/teachers/policies/etc.

2. A pitfall that schools often fall into when working with Native students is they "expect students to be respectful" automatically. That's how they grew up. But in most Native communities, respect must be earned by the individual one person at a time. When students come to school, they expect to operate the same way.

3. The "standard" way Native people deal with a student who is doing something wrong, is addressed in basically two different ways:

  1. ) If the Native parents/students involved are having major problems in life, a "dysfunctional fight/approach" occurs. The student and parent become either very angry and lash-out, or they become withdrawn and accept quietly any consequences the school imposes. Both ways of dealing with unacceptable behaviors don't work because the student is not helped in overcoming their behavioral/social problems.
  2. ) If the Native parents/students are not having major problems in life, then the more "traditional" way of doing things is the route the parents would probably choose. In this case, the student would be talked to by several people. The student would be shown what was unacceptable and then encouraged to talk about the issue, from their point of view. It is basically a group counseling session with the student. But, what often happens in these sessions, is the realization that the problem is not just with the student. Teachers, principal, and/or other students helped contribute to the problem. Thus trying to solve a problem by suspending a student usually does not get to the real problems.

4. Before alternatives to suspensions can be agreed upon, how the local Native people deal with behaviors needs to be understood in order to design a system that is acceptable to the local Native community. Very briefly, some important cultural issues that need to be understood include:

5. In the short term, what could be done that would help the student, and the school do what the school is designed to do?:

  1. ) Hold meetings with staff and discuss issues such as individual teachers' philosophy on education/discipline/etc. This highlights differences and similarities.
  2. ) Find out what you can about the local Native/non-Native views on discipline/childrearing/etc.
  3. ) Put into place, a tentative system that does not suspend students until after several things have been done, such as:

    - meeting(s) with parents, student, teacher, and others in the school,
    - form a committee involving appropriate stakeholders to discuss potential problem students well before they reach a suspension stage,
    - involve the student in some of the committee meetings, when appropriate,
    - develop an approach to working with students that is student-centered,
    - develop a consistent approach throughout the school,
    - have a program where students on the verge of being suspended are involved in activities (to build self-esteem, anger management, etc.) with out-of-school people helping (elders/etc.) to help students confront some of their unacceptable behaviors,
    - suspensions are acceptable only after the above activities are tried and when the committee feels the student can not be helped by the school system, and
    - for students who are suspended, there must be meetings with the local Native band representatives to explain why, and to look to other agencies, such as Ministry of Children and Families to assist the student.

This type of process give the student, parent, and school system an equal footing and attempts to deal with unacceptable behaviors in a more culturally relevant way.

6. It is important that Native people feel they are a part of the solution, and their ways of life are valued when it comes to their children. Properly involving Native parents is extremely difficult because the two cultures often approach the same issue from different directions. The traditional Native way of dealing with people is more respecting of the person, their views, and their space. It's believed that a person learns more when they are treated with respect, given time to deal with issues, and having people around who are willing to counsel/support.

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