Despite the lack of reliable data, politicians pushed for more suspensions in the mid-1990s. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act required schools to expel students caught with guns for a year, kicking off the "zero tolerance" movement. Today, many school districts have draconian codes of conduct that impose suspension for such trivial offenses as gum chewing or, ironically, truancy. These codes and laws likely have something to do with the post-Sandy Hook spate of suspensions for fake guns. Some state statutes explicitly allow a school to suspend students who maliciously display anything that looks like a gun.
One of the reasons suspension sticks around is that the alternatives require more money and effort, at least up front. Researchers suggest pairing in-school suspension with regular counseling, or offering so-called positive behavior support classes, which teach appropriate conduct in the same way schools teach writing or mathematics. Other creative solutions include youth courts, in which students sit in judgment of one another, or restorative circles, which involves bringing together the offender and the victim with other students to work out a fair resolution to conflict. Still, most reformers concede that suspension has its place, especially in the immediate aftermath of violence.
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Explainer thanks Robert Coombs of the Council of State Governments Justice Center; David Dupper of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, author of "A New Model of School Discipline: Engaging Students and Preventing Behavior Problems"; and Pamela Fenning of Loyola University Chicago.