How do students cope after being expelled from school?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
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In the wake of two Year 11 boys being expelled from a co-educational independent school in Melbourne’s east this week, EducationDaily reached out to education experts to explore what happens to students who face exclusionary discipline – and what the alternatives are.

As a former teacher in multicultural schools across Sydney’s western suburbs, and a former principal in the independent school sector for more than eleven years, Dr Paul Kidson – currently Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) – says he has seen the complex issues around suspension and expulsion first-hand.

“No student is expelled in knee-jerk reaction moments,” he told EducationDaily, adding that principles of natural justice and “good procedural fairness” play a part in what is a challenging decision facing school leadership.

“Most principals – and I’m talking independent, Catholic and public schools – have a vested interest in seeing kids wanting to succeed and becoming wonderful young people,” he told EducationDaily.

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“School leaders generally don’t like doing this type of work They don’t want to just erase them out because they’re a difficult, miscreant kid to deal with.”

Wrap-around support is needed

He says that, ”hopefully”, swirling behind-the-scenes of any school’s decision to remove specific students from that individual school’s community are educators and other support networks picking up the phone to talk to other education sector leaders to help find alternative options for students who, for whatever reason, cannot achieve success in their former school community.

“As a general rule, (educators) want to put students in a position where they are likely to succeed,” he says.

For students who are allowed to access a fresh start in another school, Dr Kidson says he has seen some young people – especially those in younger year levels – “absolutely blossom” because they are not encumbered by the reputation they may have had at a previous school.

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For other students, though – especially those from disadvantaged families – Dr Kidson says exclusionary discipline can be a negative that sets that student on a path they may find difficult to overcome.

Creating a safe place for female students

In the case of the expulsion of students from Yarra Valley Grammar, even to the untrained eye, there seemed little option for an alternative, with the impact on around 30 female students needing to be a primary consideration of how the school community could move forward.

The male students were disciplined after staff discovered a screenshot of a spreadsheet, which referenced sexual violence in its appearance-based ranking of female classmates at the school.

The spreadsheet, which was shared on the instant messaging and VoIP social  platform Discord, referred to the teenage girls by a range of disparaging terms, including ‘wifeys’,  ‘object’ and ‘unrapeable’.

Yarra Valley Grammar principal Mark Merry sent parents a letter on Tuesday this week, describing the two students’ positions at the school as “untenable” and confirming they would not be returning to the school.

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“A number of our students had been targeted in a cruel and highly offensive online post which caused great hurt to them and their families and distress to their friends,” Dr Merry said in the letter.

“I am saddened that the actions of a few individuals can cause so much harm as social media has the power to amplify the damage that can be done, and the anguish inflicted.”

Counselling is being offered to the female students involved.

Students with disadvantage or disability need additional support

Inclusive education expert at ACU, Dr Matthew White, says the issues around suspension and expulsion of students become more complex if those students have a disability.

“Young people with disabilities are already faced with the challenge of establishing peer connections, engagement and developing a sense of belonging in school,” Dr White told EducationDaily.

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“When a student with disability is expelled, it doesn’t just sever the young person’s connection with the school, it also impacts upon the young person’s sense of social self-concept, their identity as a member of the community and their ability to engage academically. In effect, it magnifies the disadvantage they already experience.”

He says there is an associated trauma with the expulsion of any young person (e.g. relationship breakdown, embarrassment after an event that may have precipitated the expulsion). 

“For many young people with family support, they can process the experience and overcome the trauma. However, young people with a disability are often not able to process and make connections between their behaviour and the trauma of the expulsion,” Dr White says.

“This, in turn, has a lasting effect on a young person with a disability, who even if afforded a supportive managed move will carry with him/her the trauma of the expulsion.”

When students are expelled, families are too

The impact extends to parents and carers, who can often feel it most significantly. 

The removal of perhaps one of the biggest protective factors for the young person – a connection to community – can be terribly difficult, Dr White says, because of how difficult it can be for parents and carers of children with a disability to make connections within a school community in the first place.

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“When a student is expelled, the support they once had from the school and the community is severed,” Dr White told EducationDaily.

“The impact of expulsion on parents therefore is one of a loss of trust in schools and systems. I find this results in a disengagement of parents in the collaborative planning process, as parents become disillusioned with promises of relationship and support.”

With data showing that the number of students with disabilities being suspended or expelled is growing, Dr White says “a lack of collective efficacy and inflexibility in the system” is to blame.

“All schools have a collective efficacy to include students with disability and support behaviour. A school’s collective efficacy may be determined by the experience of leadership and teachers, access to resources, the strength of support systems and the alignment of allied health supports. Some schools have great collective efficacy whilst it is limited in others,” he says.

“Budget cuts to resourcing, staffing turnover, reduction in time allocated for planning and the segregation of students with disability in special schools all limit the collective efficacy of inclusive schools. 

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“When we couple this with the inflexibility and limited tools principals have at their disposal to understand a young person’s behaviour and afford adjustments, then we get increases in the prevalence of suspension for students with unique needs.”

Unique needs require unique approaches

Dr White acknowledges that there are occasions where expulsion within a framework of support is beneficial – “especially, when balancing the safety of the school community and the well-lbeing of the young person”.

“However, expulsion is such an antiquated measure. In an inclusive community, there should not be an ‘end of the road’ for a young person’s education. Instead, we need to be looking towards measures, such as managed moves and alternative education provision that fit within a continuum of support aimed at re-engaging a young person in education.”

When it comes to supporting students with disability and challenging behaviour,” Dr White says “we need to be more proactive, screening to identify young people with disability who are at greater risk of suspension and expulsion”. 

“We desperately need to build flexibility into the system and provide greater options for principals to fast-track supports,” he told EducationDaily.

“We need to strengthen wrap-around models of care that empower the family and carers, support the young person, and build the capacity of the teachers.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live