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An ISU professor explores the troubling effects of school suspensions

Dr. Charles Bell is the author of Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety
Illinois State University
Charles Bell is the author of "Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety."

Growing up in Detroit, Charles Bell couldn’t picture himself graduating high school. He lived in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence and found it difficult to envision surviving into adulthood. When he finally did make it to college, he realized he was one of very few Black students.

Bell set out to study the barriers that were keeping so many Black students from a higher education. In his new book, Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety, Bell explores the disproportionate effects punishments like out-of-school suspensions had on Black students in Detroit. He found that removing children from school for any period of time could have ripple effects capable of altering the course of a student’s entire life.

Bell, an associate professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, found that even one suspension is harmful. Students he interviewed recounted the experience of missing an exam due to suspension and then falling behind — sometimes failing the class. Bell found that kind of setback frustrated students, who felt lost and disoriented once they returned to school. Those stressors could lead to further behavioral issues that in turn could lead to additional suspensions.

“So, just it’s a cumulative, catastrophic issue that we really need to talk about in our society,” Bell said.

The concept of an out-of-school suspension was devised to prevent violence on school grounds, Bell explained. It was meant to address immediate threats like students coming to school with weapons or drugs. But over time, Bell said schools took the zero-tolerance framework of suspensions too far, applying it to less serious issues like dress code violations. It became a tool to address “other infractions that were never designed to be punished as an out-of-school suspension,” he said.

Schools also have become too reliant on suspensions, according to Bell, adding out-of-school suspensions are the most harmful punishments for students. But what should be a measure of last resort often is the first step in the disciplinary process.

Of the many damaging misconceptions around suspensions, Bell said people often assume students who get suspended are “bad” or “disruptive.” But in reality, he said, many of those students are actually navigating trauma, just as Bell was as a child.

Part of the problem in meting out suspensions and simply removing kids from school is that no one is digging deeper into the source of a student’s problems. No one is asking kids what they’re going though outside of school, Bell said. And for many kids, especially those living in high-crime, urban areas, life outside of school can be confusing and frightening.

“It’s really tough for a child to focus in school if they can’t picture themselves being alive,” Bell said. “And children don’t even have an outlet to talk about that sort of trauma in school or in their communities, so they end up internalizing it.” Internalizing complicated feelings can result in behaviors in children that are easily misunderstood, Bell said. What may seem like misbehavior is actually a cry for help.

Recruiting more Black teachers who can relate to their students’ experiences is important, Bell said, but it’s more of a band-aid than a solution because it doesn’t address implicit biases in other educational stakeholders. Truly addressing the issue, he said, requires a much larger conversation.

“I think that we have to have a conversation nationally amongst our education force about what we see when we look at Black children and the potential for them to be doctors and attorneys, and whatever they want to be in society,” said Bell.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.