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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Suspending the Fun

Schools Try On-Campus Detention Instead of Sending Students Home

March 13, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suspension just isn't what it used to be.

Once, frustrated school officials could rest assured that if they kicked a misbehaving student out of school, the student's angry and embarrassed parents would do the rest in terms of punishment.

But these days, too many parents are working, while others couldn't care less, to be effective jailers. For some students, suspension has become another holiday, all the sweeter because everyone else is in class.

Now, several Ventura County principals are having second thoughts about the whole concept of suspension. They are revamping discipline policies and endorsing a revolutionary approach to punishment--instead of sending students home to the living room couch and daytime talk shows, they are keeping more troublemakers at school.

Students who break school rules are still suspended, but are exiled on campus, where they catch up on homework, write personal goals or clean up the school.

"It's not as fun to be at school as it is to be at home," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Miles Weiss, who supervises the juvenile unit."And if you are a delinquent or you misbe have at school, you should suffer a consequence, not a reward."

Administrators are also concerned about teens falling behind in school.

"We want to keep students in school because that's our business," said Bob La Belle, principal of Royal High School in Simi Valley. "We don't want the students to fall further behind, and penalize them unfairly for what may have happened in one period."

La Belle said on-campus suspension prevents the "snowball effect," when a student who gets in trouble in one class is sent home for a few days and ends up behind in all six classes. At Royal, students are suspended for specific periods.

Though some schools have been punishing unruly kids on campus for a decade, in-school suspension has become much more widespread in the last three or four years.

Between one-third and one-half of Ventura County schools have implemented in-school suspension, and the trend is catching on statewide as well, school officials said.

Some local schools, however, are prevented from starting similar programs because they can't find the classroom space or because they can't recruit teachers to supervise the kids.

In extreme situations, including drug or weapons offenses, students are still sent home. But most cases result in on-campus suspension. Those violations may include using profanity, ditching school, lying to a teacher or skipping detention.

Supporters say on-campus suspension ensures that students are supervised during their punishment, while separating the troublemakers from their classmates.

But not everyone is convinced of the public spirit of schools in changing their policies. Critics say there is a more practical reason for the change: money. Schools that send suspended students home lose about $20 per child each day in the formula the state uses to reimburse schools for the cost of educating students.

They also argue that just placing students who misbehave in a separate classroom does not correct their behavior problems.

"The students who are suspended should be doing more than going into a study hall," said Bill Csellak, who supervises study hall and teaches English at Westlake High School. "They should be reevaluating their behavior. And I think an administrator ought to supervise them."

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In several schools, teachers or campus supervisors take on the burden of watching suspended students--who, for the most part, aren't the least bit cooperative.

Despite the naysayers, the change in policy is popular with law enforcement officials. They say that too often when a student is suspended, he or she becomes a problem for police. Weiss said schools can help prevent juvenile delinquency by supervising all students, especially the ones who cause trouble. Sending students home only gives teens more freedom, Weiss said.

"The reality is that both parents--if there are both parents in the home--work, and there is not going to be anybody at home to take care of the kids," he said. "They are going to be bored and get out and about and start getting in trouble."

Some schools call their on-campus suspension classes "opportunity rooms." Educators say it's a good name, underscoring the idea that these are places where students have the opportunity to turn their lives around.

"Behavior is an outward sign of an inner problem in school," said Ventura County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis. "Suspension can give us an opportunity to work on that real underlying problem."

Whenever a student is assigned to on-campus suspension, the principal contacts the parents. Principals say involving parents and school counselors is the key to improving students' behavior.

Educators point out that the program doesn't work for all students, especially those who do not take the punishment seriously. Sometimes, students have to be referred to alternative or continuation schools for ongoing discipline problems.

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