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When John’s son is suspended from school, he usually plays video games. This time was different

26 Apr 2023 - Media ReleasesYouth

Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald - 23 April 2023

When John’s* son was suspended from his public high school last term, it wasn’t the 14-year-old’s first time.

“He has a fairly short fuse, I suppose you would say. He was misbehaving, he started swearing, and he threw something in the classroom,” the Parramatta father said.

Usually during a suspension, John tries to supervise his son in completing his schoolwork and to speak to him about the circumstances which led to the punishment while working from home.

“It’s difficult when I am trying to do two things at once. He will either finish the work, or decide not to finish the work and go on to play video games or something like that.”

But during his last suspension, John’s son was not sent home. Instead, he spent his time at Y NSW’s alternative suspension program, the first Australian pilot of an initiative operating for more than two decades abroad.

The program provides a structured environment for suspended students aged 12 to 18.

In the mornings, suspended students complete their schoolwork in a classroom-type environment. In the afternoons, there is a wellbeing or behaviour-focused workshop and time for one-on-one conversations with youth workers.

Data from the NSW Department of Education tallying suspensions in terms 1 and 2 of 2021 shows suspensions of high school students were at a five-year high, with 6.8 per cent of students receiving some sort of suspension during that period. Data from 2022 is yet to be published.

A 2020 survey of public school principals and staff commissioned by the department found they wanted better alternatives to suspensions, or more options to try before they sent students home.

The state overhauled its suspension policy last year, following revelations that 40 per cent of the punishments involved students with a disability and Indigenous students were also being disproportionately suspended.

Among the changes are rules designed to prevent a student from being sent home more than three times a year and restricting principals from sending a student home immediately unless they are threatening the safety of others.

Y NSW’s executive leader of purpose and impact, Louisa McKay, brought the alternative suspension program to Australia after seeing a presentation about it at a YMCA conference in London four years ago.

The program first ran in 1999 in Quebec, Canada, following concerns that suspended students at an inner-city high school were spending time on the streets without supervision. YMCA organisations have since established similar programs in the US and UK.

Reviews of the Canadian program have found 65 per cent of participants had fewer disciplinary actions after taking part, compared with 40 per cent of a control group of students given a conventional suspension.

Three-quarters of parents noticed a positive change in their child’s behaviour, while more than half said communication and collaboration with their child’s school had improved.

“I just think it’s an incredible alternative for young people. When they are suspended, they are often at home not doing much, roaming the streets, [and] their self-esteem is impacted,” McKay said.

“We know there is a pipeline from multiple suspensions to incarceration. We need another answer for our young people.”

Following the pilot program, Y NSW will run two suspension centres, in Parramatta and on the Central Coast, from this term. They will be able to cater for 300 student referrals during the first 50 weeks of operation (five school terms).

Referrals for the small group program come from schools.

Youth worker Mim Walsey, who facilitates the Parramatta program, said most of the 15 students in last term’s pilot had been suspended multiple times.

“It’s generally for anti-social behaviour, lack of engagement with schoolwork, lack of respect for others,” she said. “There has often been some violence, as well.”

Youth workers are trained in de-escalation, and interview schools beforehand about behavioural concerns.

Walsey said that initially the students were hesitant to engage and wanted to be back at school because they wanted to see their friends. However, by the end of the program they found the experience, particularly the afternoon sessions, more worthwhile.

“Having that one-on-one support to speak about coping with anxiety and stress; it’s something they don’t often have the space to talk about,” she said.

For John, it was good for his son to have someone else to speak with about what was going on at school.

“After a suspension, the school has a meeting with the deputy, the parents and the student. This time, when we had that meeting, he was a lot more vocal about what went wrong and what could be done to resolve it,” he said.

Returning to the classroom for term 2, John said his son had a better attitude.

“Or, rather, he’s no more reluctant than any other student going back to school,” he added.

*Surname withheld to protect his son’s identity.

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