By: Rachel Spears—Political Editor
Legislators in Massachusetts have voted to change laws regarding suspensions for students.
Suspensions, both in-school and at home, have long been used as a form of disciplinary action against students who have committed a misdemeanor. At Sharon High School, vaping, drug use, fighting, bullying, and the breaking of other school rules were grounds for a short suspension. A new suspension law went into effect in November 2022, requiring schools to follow new rules when suspending or expelling students.
A study published in 2020 revealed that Black female students in Massachusetts were more than 3 times more likely to get suspended when compared to their white counterparts. Students of color in public schools were also more likely to get suspended than their classmates.
To remedy these disparities, legislators in the state voted to enact a law requiring schools to pursue other disciplinary actions before a suspension. “Before suspending or expelling students, schools must consider ways to re-engage the student and, in certain circumstances, implement alternative remedies,” it says.
The state recommended a variety of options for disciplining students. “ The alternative remedies required by the law include but are not limited to: (1) mediation; (2) conflict resolution; (3) restorative justice; and (4) collaborative problem solving,” the law says.
At Sharon High School, the new law has altered the administration’s ability to punish students as they see fit. “So the new law, while its intent was good, the problem is that it has tied our hands and it makes it more difficult to suspend somebody,” said Mr. Chuck Fazzio, one of the assistant principals at SHS.
The SHS Student Handbook designates how disciplinary action will be given. “If the principal or designee decides that disciplinary action is appropriate, such action will be determined on the basis of facts found by the principal or designee, including the nature of the conduct, the age of the student(s) involved and the need to balance accountability with the teaching of appropriate behavior,” it says.
Despite having the power to choose any punishment for students, Fazzio had always believed in restorative justice. “I have always practiced what they call restorative justice now, but when I first started doing it I called it progressive discipline,” he said.
“Part of it [restorative justice] is allowing a student to step back and look at their behavior as it affects everybody else in the community. Another part of restorative justice is allowing a timeout for the victim,” Fazzio added.
The assistant principal explained more of his disciplinary philosophy and how not just the administrators are involved with the process. “[A suspension] gives [the victim] a chance to process what’s happened too and that is why the school counselors, and more specifically the adjustment counselors, Mr. Balan and Ms. Simmons are so crucial because if there was harassment or a bullying situation, or even a fight, if both sides were willing I would ask both sides to come in and have a conversation and talk,” he said.
The new law was intended to benefit students in the state by allowing them to reflect on their misdemeanors in other ways, but this is not always the case. “It’s a catch 22,” Fazzio stated.
“If you’re a victim and you expect swift justice, meaning why is that kid still in school? then this is part of the problem,” he added.
The legislation was passed without consulting teachers or superintendents. “None of those groups — the ones who are in the trenches, had their opinion sought on this legislation,” said Stefan Czaporowski, a superintendent in Massachusetts.
The lack of dialogue between lawmakers and legislators resulted in a poorly written law, Fazzio pointed out.
Students can struggle to resolve conflict through conversation and meditation. “Mediation only works if both sides are willing to sit down and have the conversation. So if you’ve been bullied you might not feel comfortable sitting down with the person who has been bullying you. So that’s a part of the trick too, how to balance that,” Fazzio explained.
Every student is different and requires different disciplinary action to be taken but legislation now limits what actions schools can take. “You need to know your audience, you need to know the students in front of you, and there are students who would welcome a suspension and there are kids that it would be devastating. So you try to weigh the impact,” Fazzio said.
He clarified that suspension is not his primary mode of punishment. “I don’t like to suspend kids, it’s a last resort,” he said. “There’s always more to the story,” he added.
At SHS suspensions are used sparingly in situations that administrators deem it justified or helpful. “It, [suspension], is supposed to be, in part, a corrective tool, the idea is to get you to change your behavior,” Fazzio said.