Punitive, in-school suspension -- yet it works!

Central High School describes itself as the first public high school west of the Mississippi River. Not unexpectedly, it is now deep in the central city, in an aging building.Steady class attendance, punctuality, and order are among its pressing problems, as they are for all city high schools in St. Louis, school personnel agree.

Suspension, the remedy most commonly applied for infraction of school rules in traditional systems, is a poor corrective; it adds enforced absence to truancy, and tends to foster inattention and indiscipline.

In an attempt to handle correction without separating students from the instructional program, Central High School inaugurated MASS -- Modified Alternatives for Student Suspension. Now in its second year, this program has significantly reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions. In the semester before it began, Central had more than 365 out-of-school suspensions; during its first semester, MASS handled 160 suspensions in school, and there were only 35 to 40 out-of-school suspensions.

The program also cut down the number of transfers to special disciplinary high schools.* Before it began, Central lost 119 students, either to these special schools or to the streets. During the first semester of MASS, only 16 students were transferred out of the school.

The idea for the plan came from Charles Brown, then one of the school's disciplinary administrators. The program itself was developed jointly by Mr. Brown, the building administration, and the Teachers Advisory Committee, to respond to a complex of worsening disciplinary problems: breakdowns in personal conduct, class cutting, tardiness, and disruptive behavior in the classroom. There were many repeaters, and traditional forms of discipline -- counseling, warning of suspension, parental conferences, letters, calls to parents, and finally suspension -- were proving ineffective.

"It seemed that we were rewarding misconduct," sighed the principal, William Purdy, "by sending them out of school -- where they didn't want to be anyway."

There was a clear need for some form of penalty that would keep students in school but give classroom teachers an effective disciplinary option. Mr. Brown and his committee proposed what is in effect an in-school suspension center. With the support of the principal and the cooperation of teachers and parents, he turned part of the school building into a highly structured and controlled environment. Two skilled teachers and an administrator were assigned to the program.

This environment, embedded in, but isolated from, the large school building, carries out the fundamental principle behind the program: isolation from the peer culture and the socially rewarding aspects of school.

MASS students are completely excluded from any contact with other students and their activities. They arrive and depart on a schedule separate from other students. They have their own special entrance; they are denied the use of their regular lockers; they are escorted in isolation to the cafeteria; they are excluded from all extracurricular activities, including athletics.

The isolation is punitive. It is also designed to provide an intense, highly structured environment conducive to success in a determined effort to change social behavior and develop study skills. Daily assignments in regular classroom work are forwarded to students in MASS by their teachers and completed under the supervision of the program's own teachers. In addition, a special communications programs strengthens basic skills in reading and writing. No MASS student is returned to the normal school routine until school assignments are completed.

In an interview with the student and his parents, Herman Brown, director of the program, discusses the specific behavior that brought the student to MASS. Together all parties work out a contract covering expectations for behavior change and outlining MASS requirements. Later the student is helped, in individual and group sessions, to develop strategies to alter behavior and cope with the demands of high school. Finally each student is required to learn the entire body of school regulations.

The initial impression is one of rigorous, even repressive, control.

No talking.

No leaving assigned seat.

No heads down on desk.

No reading of private reading material without permission.

No daydreaming.

No happy moments in the hall between classes.

A long, stern day. The first tour of duty in MASS is five days: five good days, that is, with no deviations from the routine, no failures of conduct. Tardiness or absence or infractions of the rules result in negative reports. Two negative reports add a day to the original contract. The second tour is extended to 10 days.

There is no third tour. Less than 3 percent are repeaters, which suggests the program's effectiveness.

Most of the students in MASS are ninth-graders who have not yet learned to cope with the relatively unstructured first year of high school. In the closely supervised and somewhat tutorial MASS setting, they learn how to complete assignments, how to organize their time and their thoughts, how to set goals, how to recognize and conform to the demands of a schedule, how to discipline themselves.

Five or 10 days may not seem long to an outsider. To a student in MASS, it is often time enough to learn both what he needs to know about his own behavior and how to change it. Clearly the program is not a cure-all; it's not for every student. For its director, Herman Brown, success is when a student comes in to tell him, "Mr. Brown, I haven't cut a class since MASS."

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