Alternate suspension pays dividends

Rather than going home, students suspended from school head to a unique program that encourages a change in behaviour.

When local Grade 7 student Mariah Dann was caught fighting in school in May, she was immediately suspended. But instead of spending a leisurely few days with her assignments at home, the school sent her to a unique YMCA program.

Alongside a couple of other suspended students, Dann did her schoolwork in the mornings in a quiet room, and participated in workshops and group discussions in the afternoon. She watched educational videos, such as a YouTube one about the consequences of doing drugs, and spoke about what she wants to become when she’s older.

“It made me think about my life,” she said. “It made me think about the future in a different way.”

She walked away from her few days at the Y with a clearer perspective on the fight that got her suspended in the first place.

“I feel stupid for getting into a fight with a person when I could’ve just walked away,” said Dann. “It was kind of unnecessary starting a huge fight like that.”

Dann has since made amends, and said there is no longer tension at school.

Chilliwack was the first B.C. municipality to adopt the YMCA’s Alternative Suspension model three years ago, a program that began in Quebec in 1999. A national independent evaluation in 2005 found that 85 per cent of participating students improved in their attitudes and behaviours after the program in the short-term. Half still showed improvement in the medium-term.

About 250 Chilliwack students have passed through the program, which works by referral from the school.

Alternative Suspension is yet another response mechanism to crises in schools, explained assistant superintendent Rohan Arul-Pragasam. Although the program will remain a satellite from the Chilliwack school district, the district is shouldering an ever larger share of the annual $110,000 operating cost.

Students who are fighting, caught with drugs, or have excessive absenteeism, head to the Y for three to five days. In a group of no more than six, they get a rare opportunity to gain insight into their lives, something that traditional suspensions rarely accomplish.

“If it’s an in-school suspension, and they’re just sitting outside the principal’s office, there’s not that opportunity to reflect on behaviours,” said coordinator Shari West.

Similarly, at-home suspensions are too often mini-vacations.

Grade 11 student Zack Monahan was sent to the program three years ago when he was caught smoking pot on school grounds.

The week he spent in Alternative Suspension has changed his future, he said. Watching a video of people on East Hastings talking about drugs made Monahan realize that marijuana could lead him down the same path. He didn’t want to end up there.

Monahan plans to attend Abbotsford’s Summit Pacific College after graduation to train as a youth pastor.

Both Monahan and Dann said they got more of their schoolwork done at the Y than in their normal classes, a common consequence when students are put into smaller and quieter classrooms away from their regular peers.

“In the morning time, it’s six students in the room, it’s dead silent,” said West. “They’re focused on their work, they’re getting support where they need it, and they’re getting caught up. I’ve heard this from the schools themselves. They get more work done in our program than they would in a typical day at school.”

This means that students catch up to their regular classes, rather than continuing to fall behind, giving them yet another leg up in their education.

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