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Why Suspensions Don’t Work
Getting suspended didn’t address the issues behind my behavior
Khyron Lewis
headshot

Names have been changed.

When I was in middle school, I kicked a classmate in the balls and was suspended for it. I acted out of line, and I needed to take responsibility for hurting another person. But from my point of view, getting suspended didn’t help. I behaved like this because I had needs that weren’t being addressed by my peers or by the school administration. All the suspension did was isolate me further from the people I needed to connect to.

Middle school felt like hell. I had been bullied in elementary school, and it felt like my new peers could sense how desperately I wanted to fit in. Kids called me “really white for a black girl” because I was timid and my way of speaking was more “proper” than most other black students. They called me “forever alone” because I didn’t have any friends.

I was uncomfortable going through puberty and with the attention my changing body drew from others. I wished I could become invisible to avoid it. I felt insecure and I hated going to school. My main escapes were art and writing, but I was fiercely private about my work because I was afraid of being judged.

Forever Alone

One day in 7th grade English class, I slouched in my seat, hoping to make myself smaller. Other students were chatting while Mr. Meehan was busy trying to get the new projector to work.

“Hey Khy, lemme borrow your notebook real quick? I just wanna hold it and use it as a prop,” a stout black girl named Tiara asked me. She was standing in front of the class, pretending to be the teacher.

My body tensed up. She was talking about my black hardcover journal, which I carried with me everywhere. Its pages were a haven for all the ideas that popped into my head. I spent hours writing and rewriting the beginning of a story in that notebook. I wanted the characters in my story to feel better than I did.

“Sure, but like...don’t open it. Don’t let anyone look in it, please,” I replied timidly. I didn’t want to say yes, but I didn’t want to come off as mean.

I watched as Tiara nestled my journal in the crook of her arm like a clipboard, pretending to take attendance. I raised my hand when she called my name, and she smiled at me. Then my chest clenched as Anthony, one of the loudest boys in our class, approached her.

A few months earlier, we had been reading the part in To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus Finch is defending Tom Robinson in court. Inspired by the scene, I whispered to myself, “I want to be a lawyer one day.” The boy sitting next to me erupted with laughter.

The reading stopped as everyone tried to figure out what was so funny. It felt as if my heart had been placed on a stick for everyone to gawk at. Tears rolled down my face for the rest of the period as I imagined punching him or telling him to shut up.

The pain and embarrassment from that incident stayed with me, and although Anthony wasn’t the one who’d mocked me, I could feel my stomach churn when he started to approach Tiara. In that moment, I panicked that he was about to trespass on the one thing I tried so hard to protect from other people’s judgement: my journal.

He leaned over her shoulder and tried to open my notebook to the first page. Sirens went off inside my mind and body.

Looking back, I can see that what I did next was an extreme reaction, but at the time, all I could think about was the need to keep anyone else from laughing at me. I jumped out of my chair and the world shifted into slow motion. I kicked him in the crotch and he doubled over in pain, screaming, “What the f-ck, you f-cking b-tch!?” I snatched my notebook back and ran out.

What Happened?

I ran into the hallway and hid in the stairwell. I can’t remember how they got me to come upstairs to the vice principal’s office. I sat in the room clutching my notebook, thinking about how angry my mom, my teachers, and the other students must be. I was barely concerned with how I’d hurt Anthony. I was too busy preparing to defend myself from more perceived attacks—this time, from my mother and the vice principal.

“Khy, what happened during class?” the vice principal asked. “Why did you kick him? I need to know.” The towering stacks of old textbooks made me feel small in her office. My mom was sitting next to me. Another chair was stacked with folders.

I kept my eyes down. My feelings of rage, anxiety, and shame were too complicated for me to understand. Forget about explaining my side, even if the vice principal was trying to be understanding.

When I didn’t respond, she pressed me further. “What did he do that made you kick him? This incident appears totally unprovoked.” I sensed her growing impatience. She turned to my mom. “Khy isn’t a violent person, but this kind of thing is unacceptable. It’s only fair that we suspend her.”

image by YC-Art Dept

When we got home, my mom asked if I was all right, and she let me have my space. She wasn’t angry like I expected her to be; she was more worried that Anthony’s parents might sue us.

Growing Shame

I got an in-school suspension for two days, which meant they left me in a room with the school secretary and had me do all my classwork there. I couldn’t complete my math work because I didn’t understand it. Every time someone came into the office, I felt them looking at me and my shame grew larger.

Anthony didn’t deserve to be the target of my anger. But kicking him gave me a strange feeling of power and control. When I went back to class, my peers whispered about me. I still didn’t have any friends, but at least now nobody tried to mess with me.

After the suspension, I still didn’t have any healthy outlets for my feelings. I quietly tried to deal with my social anxiety and low self-esteem. I would have other, more minor emotional outbursts throughout middle school and high school, but this was the only time I had hurt someone else.

What I needed was for someone to listen to me, and for adults to help me manage my anxiety. I had confided in my mom about my issues in elementary school, but by 7th grade, I felt I should be able to handle it on my own. So I kept my struggles inside.

I wish she or my teachers had noticed how isolated I was. If my behavior was so “out of the ordinary,” why didn’t anyone suggest counseling or therapy? After that suspension, I became less likely to turn to grown-ups for help, because I felt even more like a burden than before. I felt guilty for expressing my negative emotions and for feeling anything in the first place.

A Restorative Approach

This summer during YCteen’s writing workshop, we studied restorative justice. It’s a system of finding justice by addressing the needs of both victims and offenders. Accountability is an important part of restorative justice, but it aims to resolve the issues that influenced the offender’s actions, not just punish them. Restorative justice is increasingly being used in schools to solve disciplinary issues instead of suspension.

One method of restorative justice is sitting in a circle with the victim, the offender, and members of the community to see how the incident affected everyone. They discuss how to find a solution. I think this approach would have helped in my case. Although instead of having everyone in class speak about the incident, ideally it would have been me, Anthony, Mr. Meehan and the vice principal.

Anthony would have been given the chance to tell me how I hurt him. I’d have been given the proper space to explain how I was feeling—both to Anthony and to adults who could connect me with help. If I could have shown even a few people that I was in pain too, I think I would have been able to apologize. If you can’t acknowledge and begin to process your own pain, it’s harder to acknowledge someone else’s and understand your role in it.

I never apologized to Anthony. Since I’d hurt him, he wanted to get back at me, and he became one of the people who excluded me socially. We met again after graduating at our middle school’s block party event and I joked about kicking him. I was still insecure and socially anxious going into high school, and I took comfort in reminding myself that I was “tough” and capable of protecting myself.

In high school I eventually asked for the help I needed. During a doctor’s visit, I told my pediatrician that I thought I was depressed. She listened and took my concerns seriously. She recommended a mental health center to my mother and we made an appointment together. I felt validated and began seeing a therapist.

Since then I’ve taken the time to reflect on my past mistakes, and learned coping skills in therapy. Being suspended didn’t help me get to this point. I agree that I needed to be punished for what I did, but punishment should serve as a lesson to encourage growth. Suspension only let my negative emotions boil. I’ve become the person I am today in spite of getting suspended, not because of it.


Suspensions Disproportionately Affect Black Students

I’m not alone in thinking suspensions don’t really work. Some studies have linked them to declines in test scores and passing rates. They don’t necessarily deter disruptive behavior either: according to a study published in the Journal of School Psychology, 32% of students who had been suspended thought they would “probably be suspended again.”

Suspensions also disproportionately impact black students, other students of color, and students with disabilities. According to an analysis by New York City’s Independent Budget Office, in 2016-2017, “Black students received relatively longer suspensions on average for eight of the top 10 infractions” than those from other racial backgrounds. For bullying, reckless behavior, and altercations, their suspensions were approximately twice as long. Khyron Lewis

For more information about restorative justice approaches to school discipline, check out the Center for Court Innovation.

(NYC-2019-11-05)