Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

4700 school suspensions bring call for a new approach

Some say the best way to get troublemakers back on track while others think there must be a better way

Youthlaw says data on suspensions, exclusions and expulsions is not capturing the full picture. Photo / Getty Images
Youthlaw says data on suspensions, exclusions and expulsions is not capturing the full picture. Photo / Getty Images

Schools have handed down more than 4,700 suspensions in the past 18 months, with one high school using the punishment more than 100 times.

The numbers have prompted a call for a major overhaul of the way schools keep difficult children engaged, including teaching outside of formal classrooms.

The list of schools that have suspended, excluded and expelled students also highlights the differing approaches and the problems faced by principals and boards of trustees.

Schools in both rich and poor areas are among the strictest.

Some advocate the shock of a suspension as the best way to get troublemakers back on track, others decline to use the punishment, and at other schools it serves as a line in the sand.

Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said the number of suspensions - more than 100 at one school - was troubling.

However, problems reflected society.

Marijuana use was unremarkable in some high school settings, for example.

"Sometimes people see schools as being apart from the rest of the world. Well, they're not - they reflect the worlds in which they live."

Mr Harding said the education system needed to change the ways it kept problem students engaged.

"That may not mean for all students sitting in formal classroom settings.

"We can't simply cave in and say we've got to make school into some glorious holiday camp. There has to be hard work involved. But there also has to be some real effort to find ways to engage students who, simply, are difficult to engage."

Since 2012, 692 schools - including primaries - have suspended students, with 280 of those using the measure five times or more, information obtained under the Official Information Act shows.

In providing the information, the Ministry of Education said that it did not measure student behaviour but a school's reaction to such behaviour. Numbers under five were suppressed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Rotorua's Western Heights High School, which has a roll of about 1560, had the most number of suspensions - 104.

The decile 4 school allowed most of those students to return, having 16 exclusions and fewer than five expulsions.

Principal Violet Pelham was unapologetic about her school's numbers, saying suspension had proved one of the most powerful tools to curb bad behaviour, most of which had its beginnings outside school.

"It has proved to be a successful deterrent. Through the process of suspension, meetings with parents, whanau and community almost always succeed in reintegration and restorative outcomes. If this creates high suspension statistics, our community support us."

Hamilton's Fraser High School, a decile 4 school with about 1540 students, had the second-highest number of suspensions with 76. Of those, 35 resulted in exclusions and less than five in expulsions.

Principal Virginia Crawford said exclusion was imposed only when all other pastoral services had been exhausted, and the student was unwilling to respond to positive behaviour initiatives.

All aspects of a student's situation were considered.

"The number of suspensions and exclusions should not detract from the 95 per cent of Fraser students who are responding well to those initiatives."

Mt Albert Grammar School in central Auckland had 58 suspensions. Dale Burden, headmaster of the decile 7 school, said it was important to note the roll was around 2680.

He said there were 23 exclusions and fewer than five expulsions - meaning more than half of students suspended were allowed back to school.

A large number of the 27 suspensions so far this year were for drug-related offences, with some students allowed back to school but ordered to undertake random drug testing.

"A return to school under a tight contract with conditions has proven to be very successful at our school.

"We provide a lot of support and monitoring and only rarely do students fail and need to go back to the board."

Some smaller schools had a high proportion of suspensions.

Henderson Intermediate in West Auckland, a decile 3 school with about 560 students, had 23 suspensions, resulting in six students being kicked out of the school.

Principal Bruce Dale said most students were allowed back after a suspension, and the punishment served as a line in the sand.

"We have high expectations and are very focused on learning. And we don't want students disrupting others ... it's about making it a safe place for those that want to learn.

"It's often about fights and that sort of thing. We won't tolerate violence, so if they fight each other the first time they get a stand-down, the second time they get a suspension. The rules are crystal clear."

According to the Ministry of Education, since 2012, suspensions were used 13 times at Napier's Hukarere Girls College, a decile 1 secondary school with only 93 students.

In 2012/13 there were 4761 suspensions, resulting in 1554 exclusions and 210 expulsions.

Continual disobedience caused 515 exclusions and 50 expulsions, followed by drugs with 283 exclusions and 62 expulsions.

Physical assaults on other students were the third most common reason, with 266 exclusions and 36 expulsions. Assaults on staff accounted for 95 exclusions and 14 expulsions.

Daniel Murfitt, principal of Napier's William Colenso College, said synthetic cannabis was responsible for a number of his school's suspensions.

The decile 2 school, with a roll of about 480 students, had 35 suspensions, resulting in 17 exclusions. A successful restorative action programme at the school enabled any violence between students to often be resolved without the need for formal discipline, and actually dissuaded such trouble.

"They know the culture of the school is you're going to have to front to the victim ... that's a higher-level consequence to them."

Allan Vester, chairman of the NZ Secondary Principals Council and head of Edgewater College in Pakuranga, Auckland, said schools' figures could fluctuate markedly between years, despite no change in how troublemakers were treated.

Mr Vester said certain suspensions were done knowing that the student would definitely return to school.

"Sometimes it is difficult in some families to get anyone to take ownership of the issue, that if you do suspend it brings things to a head - parents have to come in. Then you start the dialogue, and at that point you can start to effect some positive change."

Katrina Casey, deputy secretary, regional operations at the ministry, said the number of stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions had steadily declined since 2006.

Ms Casey said the Government had committed $63 million over four years to the Positive Behaviour for Learning Programme to support schools in managing the problem.

"Every child and young person needs at least one competent and caring adult and to experience success. A school, or centre, can be the difference."

The Ministry met the chairperson of Western Heights High School board last year to discuss alternative interventions, and the school is now engaged in a school-wide positive behaviour programme.

Education Minister Hekia Parata said the Government was investing significant amounts in helping schools to keep students engaged, and worked with those that had high numbers of suspensions.

"We have also introduced a new integrated attendance service this year which focuses on the most serious cases of non-attendance and provides support."


Loophole worries lawyer

"Kiwi suspensions" are still being used to get rid of difficult students - a practice that will not show up in official statistics.

Youthlaw acting senior solicitor Vanushi Walters said the service continued to deal with cases where students were asked to leave school incorrectly.

Ms Walters said Youthlaw still received calls about principals who tried to get rid of certain students by telling their parents to withdraw them from school or they would be excluded or expelled.

This could be put to the parents as in the child's best interest. However, parents should be aware that a principal could not remove a child from school - that decision was for the board of trustees.

Youthlaw viewed such behaviour as illegal, but a principals' association says that often it is not so clear cut.

Ms Walters said Youthlaw's own analysis of previous data on suspensions, exclusions and expulsions showed it was not capturing the full picture.

"There were young people who were leaving school who were not getting to go through that process at all ... young people just feel powerless in those situations."

Even when the formal suspension process was carried out, decisions could still be unfair. Boards of trustees can be asked to reconsider their decision. Complaints can also be made to the Ombudsman, Education Review Office, Human Rights Commission and challenged through the courts - lengthy options that were often unrealistic.

Youthlaw will renew its push for an independent review function for decisions by boards of trustees.

"There should be an accessible review function for young people. It's not a new idea, it's come out of the United Kingdom where they already have these tribunals set up," Ms Walters said.

But Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said he did not see the need for a new review mechanism. "I don't think there are many board members who are looking to flip kids on a whim."


Definition

• A suspension is the formal removal of a student from a state or state-integrated school until the board of trustees decides to lift the suspension, extend it, or make the student leave school (known as an exclusion for children under 16 and an expulsion for those who are older).

• A stand-down is the formal removal of a student from school by a principal, for no longer than five days in a term, designed to give a student time to consider what he or she has done, before returning.

- NZ Herald

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