WHEN the gunshots sounded outside Houston Elementary School, Rembert Seaward and Darryl Webster, the principal and the school social worker, scrambled to the ground and ducked for cover. But one young pupil remained standing and then started to laugh—“It’s nothing but some gunshots,” they recall him saying. He told them that he would regularly play with his father’s TEC-9, a brand of semi-automatic pistol. “You think they’re just six, what life experiences could they have?” says Mr Webster. “You’d be surprised. There’s no normalcy.” Nearly every pupil attending Houston Elementary in Washington, DC, is poor and many have a parent in jail. Some live in homeless shelters and have never had a birthday party, until Mr Webster hosts one. Unsurprisingly, misbehaviour is common. But unlike many other schools, disruptive pupils are hardly ever suspended. “We need to teach them that there is some degree of love in the world,” Mr Seaward says.
Across the country school principals and teachers—both in traditional public schools and charter schools—are rethinking their approach to suspensions and expulsions for bad behaviour. In the past few years many of the largest school districts have revised their policies to reduce suspensions. Liberal reformers, citing racial disparities in suspension and the criminalisation of young black men, would like to see further reductions. Defenders of the old disciplinary model, including Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, think that the pendulum has swung too far and is harming school safety. Both reach well beyond the current evidence.