Skipping class, talking back, misunderstood disabilities: Families say some reasons for suspensions ‘ridiculous’


Edmonton’s Catholic and public school board policies say principals can suspend students when they threaten the safety of others in school, or when time away from school will be a learning experience.

When students are sent away from school, it’s with their best interests at heart, school district spokespeople said.

Those who experience suspensions and expulsions can feel differently.

Out-of-school suspensions feel like an overreaction to their behaviour, and teach them nothing, some students told the Journal. Others said they felt discipline was used unfairly and subjectively in their schools.
Their stories, which form part of education reporter Janet French’s special feature on school suspensions in Edmonton, raise questions about whether schools are following board policies, and even the law.

Many of the students are identified by first name only to comply with the law and protect their identities.

These three teen girls say their school suspends students for “ridiculous” reasons, such as talking back to teachers, and missing class for appointments or meetings. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA

Larissa, 14
Larissa has lost count of how many times she has been suspended by her principal.

The ninth grader struggles to read. She feels that instead of getting the help she needs, she gets the boot, over and over, for not finishing her work, talking back to teachers and skipping class.

“It’s ridiculous. I got suspended for not picking up a candy cane that wasn’t mine,” she said. “And I said, ‘This isn’t my f—ing candy cane,’ and I picked it up, and I threw it in the garbage. And then (the teacher) got mad at me, saying, ‘Go to the office.’ ”

“(My friends), they tell me I’ve got to prove my teachers wrong. … (Teachers) treat me dumb,” — 14 year old student Larissa

The principal suspended her for five days. When she tried to return to school, she was sent away again. She missed eight days of school in total, despite a requirement in the School Act that any suspension longer than five days will trigger an expulsion hearing.

Edmonton students are suspended thousands of times each year
The troubles at school are an extra layer of stress for a teenager who lives in flux. With no permanent home, she alternates between sleeping at a friend’s house and staying with relatives. Her trust in schools was shattered long ago when she and her siblings were taken into foster care at a school.

When asked where she sees herself down the road, Larissa expects to drop out of school.

She would have company — one study of ninth graders in Florida found each school suspension decreased a student’s chance of graduating by 20 per cent.

“(My friends), they tell me I’ve got to prove my teachers wrong. … (Teachers) treat me dumb,” she said.

Edmonton Public Schools, which will only respond to examples in general terms, said there is no “boilerplate” response to student conduct.

“Students and families may not be aware of the other information, including accounts from other students and from school staff, that a principal has collected when considering a suspension,” spokeswoman Carrie Rosa said in an email.

Mari-Anne Joslin’s son Duncan Joslin, 17, has several health problems and disabilities and has had many rounds of detention and suspensions at school and now has left school. His mother isn’t sure how to get him to finish high school. ED KAISER / POSTMEDIA

Duncan Joslin, 17
All Duncan Joslin learned from his repeated suspensions was that he was “a bad kid and they didn’t want him at school,” said his mom, Mari-Anne Joslin.

She adopted Duncan as a toddler, aware of his fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and liver disease. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, memory problems and Tourette syndrome, which prompts him to speak out impulsively and struggle to judge social cues.

In Grade 9, he poked a smaller child with a stick at lunch after forgetting to take his ADHD medication.

He told school staff he wasn’t feeling right and wanted to stay inside that day. They didn’t listen, his mom said.

Another time, he accidentally brought a jackknife to school and, when he discovered it in his pocket, he thought he was doing the right thing by turning it over to the teacher. Both incidents earned him suspensions.

In high school, administrators handed him a string of detentions and suspensions for wandering the halls and disrupting classes, his mom said. Although classroom teachers worked hard to include him, Duncan was never offered an aide to help with his behaviour and distractibility in school.

He never intentionally broke rules or threatened anyone, she said.

“Kids don’t get suspended for who they are, but for breaching our policies and regulations for conduct and behaviour,” — Edmonton Public Schools spokeswoman Carrie Rosa

By Grade 11, Duncan’s attendance tapered off until he quit school entirely, fearing he would be expelled. He’s now 17 and looking for a job. His applications to several alternative high school programs have been turned down.

“It’s extremely frustrating to have a kid who’s trying his best to do what he’s supposed to do, and he’s not being defiant, and nobody gets it,” his mom said.

All public schools have individualized program plans for students with challenges so staff are aware of any special needs, Rosa said.

“Kids don’t get suspended for who they are, but for breaching our policies and regulations for conduct and behaviour,” she said.

Families who feel they were treated unfairly should call the school district, she said.

“Do we get it right 100 per cent of the time? No, but we endeavour to do better all of the time and we want to continue to work with families.”

Alex Nickerson, 19, poses for a photo. DAVID BLOOM / POSTMEDIA

Alex Nickerson, 19
The consequences of an expulsion can last beyond the school years.

Just ask Alex Nickerson, who would one day like to have a high school diploma listed on the hundreds of resumes he’s handed out in Edmonton.

The 19-year-old has been homeless, and mostly jobless, since he was kicked out of a Leduc high school at 17.

His family moved a lot, bringing Alex to four schools in four towns in three years. He loved his friends, but found lessons uninspiring. He skipped a lot of classes.

Multiple suspensions hurt his relationship with his father, he said. Then he missed two weeks of classes after starting up a poker ring in a Leduc high school cafeteria.

The vice-principal called him into his office and said he was no longer a student.

Nickerson said he asked for another chance, but was told he’d be charged with trespassing if he returned. He said he never received a notice of expulsion, which is required by law.

Black Gold school division spokeswoman Carmen Pezderic said no student has been expelled from Leduc Composite High School in the last three years.

Although she couldn’t speak to individual cases, Pezderic said generally, when attendance becomes an issue, school administrators speak with the students, then parents or guardians, then call a meeting with family if the problem persists. Only the school board can expel a student, she said.

Now, Nickerson lives in an Edmonton youth shelter, plays his bass guitar and hopes he can find a construction job and eventually get his diploma.

He knows he’s capable of more than street life.

“I have nothing to fall back on. It’s kind of depressing. Even when I walk around on Whyte (Avenue) on a busy night, I look around and I see all the nice cars, and all the people having the time of their fricking lives. I’m like, ‘Dang it, I don’t even have 10 cents in my pocket.’ ”

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