A year ago, Miami-Dade County Public Schools made a splash by eliminating out-of-school suspensions. At the time, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho cited research saying sending kids home made them fall behind in school and made them more likely to get into trouble again.
In an interview eight months into the initiative, he called the new alternative-to-suspension program a “transformational” success for students.
“Overnight, through a bold decision, we went from a school system that had suspended students 22,800 times to a school system that suspended students zero times,” he said.
But kids are still being sent home from school, whether the district calls it suspension or not.
Two weeks ago, Tarakesha Pierce’s third grade son was sent home from Holmes Elementary School. “They called me to come get him,” she said. Ms. Pierce was unaware the school district had eliminated suspensions in the first place, and she didn’t question the school’s decision.
“If he wasn’t being bad and fighting and being disruptive,” she said, “they would never have sent him home. I know my child, and like I said, he was acting out at home, so I know he gave them hell at school too.”
When she showed up at school, Pierce was asked to sign a letter explaining the situation. It said her 9-year old showed “defiance” and “disrespect for authority” in class and that he’d been in a fight at lunch. It said her son was “removed from class” and could come back after missing two school days.
But the letter didn’t use the word suspension. “A child that can’t go to school, I would call that an outdoor suspension,” Pierce said. Here is the letter:
According to district policy, children who are removed from school for behavior issues must be referred to an alternative-to-suspension program. The district’s main program, called “Success Centers,” serves only kids aged 11 and up. Programs for younger kids are supposed to take place within the school. But the letter only said Pierce’s son could come back to school the following week, after a meeting to discuss his behavior.
When I talked with her son at home about what happened, he admitted he’d gotten into a fight with another boy over a pencil. But he was frustrated when he tried to explain himself to a school administrator “She didn’t say nothing; she just kept, she just kept writing a letter when I’m telling her, then, and she wouldn’t listen." Asked what he thought should happen when two kids get in a fight, he said, “Both should get suspended instead of one person.”
Did that mean he had been suspended? “I didn’t really get suspended,” he said. “They said I couldn’t come back to school until my mom come—Thursday, Friday. After my mom comes I can go back on Tuesday.”
The 9 year old is right: His mom says school officials told her her son’s experience shouldn’t be considered a suspension because it didn’t go in his file.
The school's principal declined to comment for this story. Privately, though, multiple teachers at Holmes and nearby middle and high schools spoke of cases similar to Pierce’s — a kind of “off the books” suspension.
Jaxquel De La Cruz, now a senior at Miami Jackson High School, says he was sent home last year for accumulating too many tardies. “They tell you if you try to come again during the days you’re supposed to be out, they will arrest you for trespassing, and you clearly don’t want that—so you just stay away from school and go wherever.” In his case, that meant killing time at the Winn-Dixie across from school and then hanging out in the Allapatah branch library until his friends got out of school.
Jackson’s principal flatly denied that the school continues to use suspensions of any kind when we spoke in May. But other students corroborated De La Cruz’s story, saying they had been sent home for behavior with no offer of an alternative.
Nell McGhee says her grandson was also threatened with being arrested for trespassing when he was sent home from Brownsville Middle School. “So I picked him up; he hung out with me for those days. He was always asking, ‘Grandma, I keep hearing no suspensions; well, why are they sending me home?’"
Brownsville and Holmes teachers who have seen these off-the-books suspensions up close say schools have been asked to eliminate suspensions without getting enough staff and support to make that a realistic goal. “If the district was willing to put their money where their mouth is—‘we’re going to give you more psychologists, we’re going to give you more counselors, we’re going to set you up with Jackson hospital so your students have access to more services,— then, we couldn’t say anything because they’ve given us every opportunity,” one teacher said, calling the new initiative the “no-suspension diet.”
“But they’ve asked us to eliminate suspensions without providing the interventions that would help prevent suspensions,” said the teacher.
Dan Losen, who studies school discipline at the Civil Rights project at UCLA, says he’s seen this problem before. He told one story of a big city district where data showed a huge drop in the number of kids being suspended.
“An administrator told me at this closed-door meeting, ‘you don’t understand; nothing has changed’ I said, ‘nothing has changed?’ And I started repeating the numbers I had that showed dramatic improvement.” The administrator’s response, according to Losen, was that “principals are just telling their students that they want to suspend to go away for a couple days and then come back, and basically not, keeping track, or recording or reporting these suspensions.”
Newspaper accounts have noted similar discrepancies with suspensions in Boston, Los Angeles and Tampa. But none of those school districts has taken the step Miami has, of claiming to eliminate suspensions altogether. Miami district officials said they were not aware of any off-the-books suspensions but said in a statement they continue offering training for school administrators to improve school discipline.
Pierce’s son returned to third grade after two days at his aunt’s house.