Suspensions Outnumber Students at City School 

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If out-of-school suspensions were an SOL requirement, students at Fairfield Court Elementary in Richmond's East End might be among the state's highest achievers.

In a school with a population of 398 last year, administrators passed out 485 suspensions to kindergarten through fifth-grade students, which of course indicates a problem with repeat offenders.

Other schools are racking up numbers too.

At Chimborazo Elementary, 390 suspensions were divvied up among 555 students. At J.L. Francis, 531 students saw 245 suspensions.

Of the city's 29 elementary schools, 14 of them resorted to suspending students more than 100 times last year. Only five schools had 20 or fewer suspensions.

The numbers represent individual incidents in which a student received a suspension as punishment for behavior, not the total number of days students spent out of school.

Due in part to Richmond Schools' zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the high number of suspensions is casting a pall over recent successes in raising SOL scores.

School Board member Keith West, whose district includes the five schools with the highest suspension rates, says he's not sure what to make of the numbers. But he has positive things to say about Fairfield.

"Do look at their SOLs -- they're right at the top of the city's. What they're doing works," West says. "I am reluctant to criticize [Fairfield Court Principal Dr. Irene] Williams because she's doing such an exceptional job there."

Fairfield, which primarily pulls students from two of the city's economically depressed housing projects, Fairfield and Whitcomb courts, boasted 100 percent pass rates in three testing areas last year. The school's lowest scores were in science: a 93 percent pass rate.

West is still bothered by the suspensions.

"I think what we do need to do as a system is to provide better alternatives," he says. West says he only recently became aware that suspension is so frequently employed among students so young in Richmond. "You'd think there'd be something better to do with them than leaving them sitting at home."

Schools officials acknowledge they face challenges in taming their elementary suspensions. "Yes, as a school division, we are discussing what other alternatives there are to reduce the number of suspensions," says Ron Cary, executive director of elementary education for Richmond Schools. He blames some of last year's suspension numbers on difficult adjustments when some schools were closed and combined.

Fighting and bullying were among the reasons for the suspensions, he says, but so were lesser offenses, like defiance and insubordination. Cary says some newly implemented programs are already working. Through the end of the first semester of the current school year, he says, suspensions are down by 1,000.

The jury remains out on this year's success, says dubious School Board member Carol Wolf, who's advocating another look at how the district punishes its students.

West calls the school system's discipline policy "harsh." When zero-tolerance policies are applied, he says, students are "more likely not to graduate in the end. Then it's society's problem."

William Bosher, a public policy professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and former state superintendent of schools who also sat on Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's education committees, agrees.

"Those are big numbers," Bosher says, calling suspension a necessary tool, but one that when used so frequently should be re-evaluated for its success. "It's seldom an answer to change of behavior."

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