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Begging The Question : Shooting the Message?

As so often happens when Government Reports are released, rounds reporters at our ‘major newspapers’ give them the once over and move on - even in an age when their publishers have the luxury of web space to allow oh so much more… In his third column Jimmy Solen begs some more topical questions.

In amongst the sensitive content of her recent ill-fated speaking engagements Celia Lashlie also made a reference to the telling statistics the Ministry of Education released in its 8 page Report on Stand-downs, Suspensions, Exclusions and Expulsions on 17 April (see Scoop Archives). Just as tonight’s Face The Nation on TV One did in passing, giving more mileage to a sad turn of events and probable touchstone for a good old debate on the 'ills of society' and preventative mechanisms.

It was on 18 April that Ms Lashlie, also known as Ces, outspoke herself at a well attended and innocent looking Restorative Justice meeting in Wellington with the audience even including some of the nuns who had provided her own schooling. Days later her contract with government agency the Specialist Education Service, also known as SES, had been terminated. [As of now she’s still listed on the SES website along with a whole lot of colleagues who might appreciate an email to ask them what they THINK!!].

Here’s some of the detail of the suspensions report you're not likely to have read in the Herald or the other daily papers south of the Bombay Hills.

The statistics in the mercilessly compressed report revealed that 23 percent of the 5,108 students suspended from school last year moved on to another school. This and the 16,921 students who were stood down represented an increase of 5-6 percent on the previous reporting period. Boys made up 74 percent of this group and overall two thirds were between ages 13 and 15.

In the way that such reports can’t help but do some fudging very little mention was made of exclusion (passing on the problem?) or expulsion. It seems a bit rich to state that “for the vast majority of students concerned exclusion is not the end of schooling” when in the same paragraph its plain that 31 percent have simply moved or vanished off the rolls or otherwise await their fate.

Ranked by severity the reasons or “offences” for suspension were:

Drugs (including substance abuse) - 1553
Continual disobedience - 1216
Physical assault on other students - 803
Verbal assault on staff – 294? (reads 2594 on pdf)
Other harmful or dangerous behaviour - 253
Theft - 251
Alcohol - 181
Physical assault on staff - 128

For stand downs the order was:

Continual disobedience - 4196
Physical assault on other students - 3891
Verbal assault on staff – 2723
Other harmful or dangerous behaviour - 1059
Alcohol – 1033
Theft – 861
Smoking - 692
Drugs - 642

Not a lot of difference except that Smoking makes an appearance and Drugs goes from top of the list to bottom. The proportion of suspensions for Drugs compared to stand downs is more than 2 to 1.

Vandalism, Arson, Weapons, Verbal assault on other students and Smoking were all below or well below 100 suspensions each. Sexual harassment and Sexual misconduct were the reasons for 33 and 24 suspensions respectively.

Suspensions per 1000 students were at their highest on the West Coast (17.69 per 1000), Northland (15.36) and Bay of Plenty (10.94). All other regions were in single figures.

The highest proportion of stand-downs – 39 percent – were in lower decile schools and it was roundly noted that Maori, who made up 47 percent of suspended students, were “the only group that had more suspensions than their proportion of the population”. This is like such a feature of such reportese – when after all these stats tables in New Zealand routinely consist of five ethnic groups (Pakeha, Maori, Pacific, Asian, Other). And wouldn’t it be kind of human to use an expression like Maori children – you know, not adults.

It doesn’t take a PhD for all to begin to sound vaguely similar to statistics for crime and criminology – and doesn’t it all begin to bear out what Ces Lashlie, former Prison manager, didn’t have to work on both sides of the fence to help declare? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have some mainstream journalist sit down and make some of these comparisons, to draw out some more questions, to challenge any fudging head on?

Let’s hope Ces Lashlie gets if not a reprieve, then a journalism award.

Note: The Government’s initiatives or preventative mechanisms to the conveyor belt called suspensions are outlined on page 8 of the report and regional breakdowns are available on the Ministry of Education website at www.minedu.govt.nz; the same site where the analyses – independent or otherwise - of the merger of the Central Institute of Technology and Hutt Valley Polytechnic are begging to have a truck driven through them, but that really would be another story...

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