IP Weekly #8
A few times a year students in their senior year of high school meet with me to ask that I expunge their suspension. Often the suspensions were from their freshman or sophomore years and are the only disciplinary blemish on their records. It is these meetings that are usually my favorite meetings of the year. Last Friday was another memorable meeting and I am happy to share why.
First, some context. The meetings take place with only me and the student. It is one of the few formal meetings I get to have with students about something as important as suspensions and college applications that do not involve parents. I understand why parents would want to be included in these meetings and make the appeals themselves, but part of my process is to listen to each student, hear their story again and look for growth. With parents in the room students are likely to be guarded and rehearsed and I wouldn’t be able to let our conversation wander to other topics far beyond the suspension itself. These meetings are often my opportunity to get to know students and I am simply not prepared to give that away.
Second, the college application process includes a question about having ever been suspended. For obvious reasons applicants want to answer no. Students having been suspended need that suspension expunged in order to answer no which leads us to the meeting. Of course there are limitations, suspensions I cannot expunge — criminal offenses for example. In almost all cases, however, I have the sole purview to erase the record of a student.
I understand that there are times I must suspend a student. While the infractions that warrant suspension are ever changing they do exist. I have long believed that the suspensions themselves should be the final punishment for a student and that no record should exist, but alas records are in fact permanent. As a young school administrator I recall seeking suspensions for two students when the principal asked me if I thought the suspensions would change the students behavior. He was cynical, from another era of school leadership, and believed that the only students we suspended were, in the end, all recidivists. While some students do indeed end up getting suspended a second or third time while in high school, the vast majority of students suspended are only suspended once. The suspension process can be a jarring one for young teenagers, coupled with the right interventions after the event there is even a better chance for a behavior change to occur.
The final piece to this puzzle and maybe another reason why I enjoy these meetings so much is that I have a very short memory when it comes to suspensions. There are still some school administrators that “keep their eyes” on troublesome students and maybe one day years ago I was that person, but I much prefer to see the goodness in people than only recall the bad. So, these meetings are also opportunities to hear the narrative of events from the viewpoint of the student instead of me recalling it first. I always ask students why they were suspended before asking a host of questions about the events themselves.
Students are frequently embarrassed by the stories they tell. They don’t recognize that version of themselves from a few years earlier. The student from last Friday was 14 when suspended and while only almost 3 years older it was clear that he was no longer that person. He and I talked for almost 30 minutes on Friday. A few of those minutes were about the suspension, how he feels about it now, and how he feels about himself. We then spent the rest of our time talking about his future, where he saw himself after high school, the work he does after school and over the summer, along with with music and his family.
I don’t know if this student walked away from this meeting with anything other than what he wanted — the expunged suspension. I walked away with a greater understanding of a student in my school and fuller view of who he is and who he hopes to become. These meetings aren’t just for the students, they are also for me. They are a reminder of the goodness in people and that while we should all be accountable for our actions, they should never be the sole method for evaluating who we are. I know I don’t want to be judged for my worst decisions, so I won’t do that to my students.
See you next week, IP.