Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The sun never sets on the in-school suspension room

When students at my school are suspended, which happens on a fairly regular basis, they have to spend the day in the in-school suspension room (which is really just the guidance counselor's office with a special code name). This is really more to give their classmates and teachers a break from them than a punishment for the suspended student, because all it means for them is that they're excused from regular classroom routines and expectations for the day. Students who are aggressive become more aggressive after being cooped up in a small office all day. Students who crave unlimited attention -- positive or negative -- get exactly what they want in the suspension room, because they're alone with a teacher. (School policy is that teachers are never to be alone with just one student, but this happens all the time in the suspension room.)

When a student is in the suspension room, a rotating cadre of teachers is assigned to cover the room -- including, of course, your own intrepid Miss Brave. My two periods a week in the suspension room are "schoolwide" periods, meaning that I wouldn't be doing anything else during those periods anyway except using them as extra preps. But other teachers assigned to the suspension room are Academic Intervention Services teachers, meaning that they're being pulled away from providing services to our neediest students in order to sit in a room with a suspended student. They used to put memos in our mailboxes when the suspension room was in effect, but now it's open so frequently that they can't keep up and they just make announcements over the loudspeaker. I typically don't hear these announcements, since I'm out of the building first period, which forces other teachers to come looking for me and then I feel like a jerk. But the teachers who cover the room after me are also almost always late; I would estimate that in the past few months I've lost at least an entire prep period's worth of time (five minutes here, ten minutes there) to waiting for my suspension room replacement.

Sometimes our school is sent students from other schools who have been suspended. As you can imagine, this makes a difficult situation worse because we the teachers don't know the students or why they've been suspended, and the students are in a strange environment with strange adults and are expected to make a smooth transition from one adult to the next every 55 minutes.

The suspension room is the only place in my school where I've felt genuinely unsafe. It's the only place I've had students touch me or threaten to touch me in an aggressive manner. It's an ugly combination of factors: emotionally disturbed and angry students + young, inexperienced teacher without crisis intervention training + small office without outside stimulation minus any kind of guidance or support = implosion. No one, for example, has ever explained to me what kind of interaction I'm supposed to have with these students; ostensibly they're supposed to be doing work that's provided to them by their classroom teachers, but it's essentially busywork and they can tell, which is why a majority of them spend their time staring at the walls or trying to pick fights with me. Am I supposed to ignore them? Am I supposed to encourage them to do their work, but try to keep my interaction minimal? Am I supposed to offer them my support? No one has ever told me who to call when suspended students start to go beserk, which has happened to me on a few occasions while no other adults were in the office. No one has ever advised me what to do when students start peeling things off the walls and tossing them in the garbage can, or pushing buttons on the copier, or banging large wooden blocks furiously against the table. (All of those things happened during one memorable hour with my most challenging second grader; in the grand culmination, he grabbed my wrists and forced them away from a garbage can lid that he happened to be swinging, and how could we respond? By bribing him with choice time for ten minutes of "reading.")

Twice a week, I leave the suspension room feeling frustrated, exhausted, disillusioned, and emotionally broke down. Today, for instance, my suspension room coverage ended in tears...and I'm not talking about the suspended student. (He physically assaulted at least two teachers in the last two days, so I consider myself fortunate that I at least escaped without bodily injury.)

There has got to be a better way.

1 comment:

k said...

I know exactly the feeling. I've been working in public schools for about 10 years, but this year was the first time that I have been physically assaulted by students. I mean, they're seven, so they can't really hurt me, but I've been shocked that they cross that line...and horrified that the administration doesn't seem that appalled. It's incredibly draining to be around angry, destructive kids.