Exile Has Its Place: A High School Principal Reflects on School Discipline

By T. Elijah Hawkes

Illustrator: David McLimans

Exile Has Its Place: A High School Principal Reflects on School Discipline
Illustration: David McLimans

…you can’t betray a country you don’t have  

       -James Baldwin

Exile has its place. As an age-old human response to conflict, its potential value to the healthy maturation of students and the school community should not be discounted.

Exile or ostracism goes by various names in school. Students are told: Move your desk. Leave the classroom and wait in the hall. Go to the office. Go to detention. You’re suspended.

There are those in progressive education circles who dismiss suspension as a careless traditional response to a situation better addressed by counseling and alternative, restorative justice methods. Others aptly note that the power to suspend is often abused: used to push out students who might challenge us, thus furthering systemic neglect and mistreatment. If done right, however, suspension, or exile, can be the first step in a restorative process, and a meaningful and fair response to the violation of community values.

Sometimes Kids Just Needed to “Get Out”

At the James Baldwin School in New York City, we’ve just finished our fourth year. We’re under 300 students, mostly transfers from other high schools, majority black and Latino, residing in four City boroughs. It’s a vastly heterogeneous population in terms of academic past, scholastic sophistication, and ambition.

Last year I was working with a colleague who was new to the teaching profession and struggling to maintain a respectful climate in the classroom. Wrangling demons and darlings each day, sometimes not sure who was who, he was certain that sometimes kids needed to just “get out.” Students kept arriving at my office. So I met with the teacher to discuss what I first wrote him in a note:

Suspending students from class can be an effective strategy, just like suspensions from school, to force certain conversations and reflection, to develop behavior contracts, and to broaden the child’s ‘circle of accountability’ to include more people, such as the codirectors, advisor, or parents. However, the classroom environment and community, like our school community, is among our most sacred entities. Excluding people from it (to have them re-enter) should be a strategy of last resort.

We discussed how removal from class, while a last resort, is not an end but the beginning. It initiates a labor-intensive process that includes a reentry meeting with the student and perhaps the advisor to clarify expectations and establish future consequences, listening well to the child all the while to better understand the root causes of the behavior.

Suspending a Newcomer: Dwayne’s Story

As with removal from class, so with suspension from school: It is an ostracism that begins a substantive process of reflection and return. Consider Dwayne. His exile resulted from his assaulting another boy after school. Suspension was a given, for there’d been violence, but we were concerned that it might not be effective because Dwayne was new. He’d been with us so short a time that we hadn’t built the requisite sense of belonging. Ostracism should inspire feelings of loss and regret, and these are only likely if some sense of home has been established first.

When Dwayne came to us, he brought colossal mistrust of teachers and some extraordinarily aggressive and lewd habits of interaction. He was thus having trouble establishing relationships with anyone, from peers to his advisor. He didn’t feel at home. So, during his suspension, our task was not simply to provide him with assignments, to maintain contact and prepare the mediation; our work was even more basic. We had to nurture bonds of trust that had barely yet been formed—all the while telling him, and his family, why he was suspended from our community for a time.

The suspension was several days long, and we needed all that time to prepare the reentry. I spent several hours with him and his parents, hours with him alone, and hours as well with Roland, the other boy involved. Other staff also spent time with the boys; it became clear that some classic seeds of conflict were at root: attraction, disrespect, betrayal, sexuality, and turfs both interpersonal and material.

Dwayne acknowledged feeling threatened by things Roland was saying and texting. He admitted feeling disliked and hurt, especially because Roland was spreading comments from kids who’d known Dwayne at his old school. They said he just wasn’t worth liking. He felt unfairly followed by a reputation and helpless to shed it. He was angry and still defensive, but after a few days he was able to verbalize some positive qualities in Roland, that he’s “generous to his friends” and would “go the distance for them.” I kept notes and gave them to his advisor and to the counselor who facilitated the mediation. That was about six months ago. We’ll see how things unfold, but so far, since his return and the mediation, while there have been other issues, he hasn’t been in a violent conflict.

 The extensive time preparing Dwayne’s return was well invested: We listened to him, asked questions, got to know him better. We showed we had high expectations for him, asserted that we were willing to forgive—and that he could, too.

Senior Drama: A Fight Between Two Cliques

In a world of different circumstance, consider Monica, a student we’d known not three months but three years, and her story of exile and return. It was two springs ago, and emotions were running full and high.Monica and friends were one group, and Sara and friends were counterpoised. Over the course of months there were constant ups and downs, some minor mendings, then fresh affronts: a text message of disrespect, a shoulder bump in the hall, a name on the bathroom wall. There were times when one girl would make a threat and everyone expected a fight after school. Classrooms were disrupted. We’re a small school, so we felt each reverberation of even the smallest incident. It was more than a situation or incident, it was a subculture of ire and cutting eyes.

Each girl had her motives and needs. I think that at the heart of it for Monica were two compelling circumstances. One was that on the periphery of Sara’s group was Janelle, who’d once dated Monica’s boyfriend—thus, a rival. The other circumstance was that the previous year, in another context, Monica had been beaten very unexpectedly, publicly, and painfully by an emotionally disturbed older girl. This new conflict plucked at thick cords of meaning inside Monica: She couldn’t let herself again be a victim or feel inferior.

The staff had strong bonds with Monica and many of the other girls and their families. We were intent to guide them to peace. But our efforts—individual counseling, mediations, family meetings, warnings that college recommendations and participation in the graduation ceremony were at stake, even a half-day retreat for the factions hosted by our counselor and social worker—all seemed to have little lasting impact. We consoled ourselves, however, that there had never been a physical fight.

Until the fight.

Monica and two friends jumped Sara and two of the others. Allies piled on, some trying to de-escalate, others making it worse. A phone was lost in the scuffle on the sidewalk. And the police happened to be on the block, so it was quickly removed from my authority. Tears, fear, and screaming, and some of the girls were suddenly in the heavy hands of the cops, who quickly shaped the missing phone into larceny. Then there were handcuffs, more humiliation, and police custody all night for four girls.

On the broad scale of pain that any day can trouble the children of New York City and their schools, this was minor: no one hospitalized, no one killed, and the charges against the girls eventually dropped. But it felt deeply painful still. As staff, we felt like failures. It was June and we were exhausted. But for us and for the girls, it was just the beginning of several stories of suspension and return.

Exile and Return

Some families decided to keep their daughters out of school for the remainder of the year, beyond any exile we imposed. There were just two weeks left, and the families of three seniors decided that they’d simply do their course work from home and then graduate. But none of us was comfortable—even the students and families, I think—with the idea that their exile, self-chosen or school-imposed, wouldn’t include some restitution and closure. Nor were any staff—despite some strong differences of perspective on these events—willing that seniors on either side of the conflict participate in our graduation ceremony without some repair.

We decided that in order for any of them to march at graduation, they had to engage in a public accounting before staff and younger students, to confront the past and the legacy of their actions.

Just as suspension is kin to age-old stories of exile, so too our forum for repair was cousin to something ages old. I was reminded of Gacaca, a practice for communal restitution in Rwanda. Similar structures exist among the First Nations of North America and in other cultures in other times. It happened in a circle. It was intergenerational. It was a public reckoning.

There were 13 students, one from each advisory group, and as many staff as could attend. The younger students were first asked to reflect on why their advisors had chosen them for the meeting. Some needed coaxing but eventually each spoke of some good quality that their advisor might have seen in them. These proclamations of their own moral strength both served to validate why they’d been selected and helped the students set high expectations for the meeting and for themselves. The adults did no talking at this point. I then asked the students to imagine what it would feel like to be one of the seniors right now. Some responded judgmentally with what they thought the seniors should be feeling. I interrupted and again asked them to simply imagine what the girls were actually feeling. Students said the girls might feel nervous, embarrassed, angry at themselves, regretful, and some noted that it would take bravery to do this.

Each senior, one at a time, came in accompanied by her advisor, who sat beside her, with me at her other side. I wanted each girl to feel supported, not simply confronted face to face. I first told her that her peers thought it took courage to come before us. Then I asked the senior to reflect on the lessons she’d learned, what made her proud and what she regretted. After she spoke, the younger students were asked to paraphrase what they’d heard and to do this with “I” statements, such as, “Monica, what I heard you saying was . . .” After hearing the younger students’ paraphrasing, the senior was asked if there was anything else she wished to add or comment. We heard her thoughts and then we all turned to a conversation about how to make the school stronger next year.

We did this four times, with four girls, a two-hour process. Each senior admitted something she would have done differently. Some of the most meaningful comments came from Monica and Sara, who made simple unsolicited statements of being sorry for choices they’d made and for how it unsettled the community. They’d not been told that an apology was required. Each time this happened, I stopped the conversation. I asked the group if anyone was willing to accept the apology. Various students spoke to say yes.

The apologies and the future-focused conclusion of the meeting gave us some closure and hope. The thoughts from the students on how to strengthen the community were good ones: peer resources for conflict resolution, more guidance groups, and after-school classes to allow students to know each other in extracurricular settings and to help decrease the likelihood of cliques. Each senior who participated was allowed to take her place at our commencement ceremony, a most important rite.

No Return Without Restitution

There was one senior, Angela, whose family hadn’t allowed her to come to the meeting with the younger students. In the end, she couldn’t have marched in commencement anyway, because she was two credits short of graduating. But she was still a member of the class, had been with us for two years, and she fervently wished to attend the ceremony. It was difficult, but we refused to let her come.

This spring, Angela called. She had completed her coursework over the summer and graduated without ceremony last August. Now she wanted to wear a cap and gown this June. We explained she would need to participate in a process of restitution. She was willing. We gathered students and staff and took a few days to prepare. A year had passed but we recognized that this story of exile and return still had the potential to heal—both her and us.

“I played a big part in the feud, fueling it,” she said to start. “It was a learning experience. . . . I got locked up. . . . I realized I don’t want that for myself.” We asked her to explain why she wanted to participate in this ceremony. “Because graduating from high school is really big. . . . This year I was in college but I still felt like I was in high school. I didn’t have that closure.” After other questions and reflections, including an apology to the eldest student in the room, she was asked to leave so we could deliberate. Should her request be granted? The students spoke first. “Yes, she should be allowed,” the eldest said, “She’s a new person. She made a change.” And the youngest thought Angela had “really reevaluated herself . . . and made a big step in apologizing here in person.” A third student said, “If I was in her shoes, I’d feel the same. Being in college without the graduation ceremony from high school. Something’s missing.” The teachers then reacted to the students’ observations. We agreed, in the words of one teacher, that “she should participate in our graduation ceremony because she and society and our school will be better for it.”

We continue to reflect and continue to learn from these stories of exile, return, and repair. There’s often a lot to be learned from excluding and being excluded. It’s an essential aspect of knowledge development and identity formation: belonging and not belonging, category and classification, comparison, juxtaposition, groupings. And many stories tell us that there are few more powerful punishments than exclusion from a group to which you feel you belong. School leaders should levy this punishment with discretion and clarity, as wise elders have through the ages—for if our schools feel like communities, then exile can have its place, provided time and love are invested in the return.