Shelley Burne-Field, a writer based in the Hawke’s Bay, on the insidious practice of “Kiwi suspensions”, illegal stand-downs and suspensions which disproportionately target Māori and Pasifika students.
High schools in Hawke’s Bay seem to be haemorrhaging students. There’s a large cohort of rangatahi who aren’t going to school. I’ve heard this personally in high school board meetings — from teachers, counsellors, mental health specialists, from friends, and from whānau.
My own whānau regard secondary school at best as a babysitting service, and at worst as a toxic environment you wouldn’t send your worst enemy to.
I don’t think we’re alone. In the first quarter of this year, over 40 percent of Aotearoa’s school students didn’t attend school.
School attendance has been getting worse since 2015. One part of the overall problem is that our schools are often unsafe and racist. And another is that many of the “truant” or simply AWOL students have been stood down, either legally or illegally, for not much more than ”defiance” (what does that even mean?), or vaping, or some other teenage-y manifestation, and have decided not to go back. Or they’ve been asked to stay away for disobedience. And this doesn’t even take into account tamariki with high needs.
Does this explain why many students are leaving school, or not returning to school? Is it simply a case of a pumping job market, and absences because of Covid and flu? I suspect these are part of our rangatahi’s immediate experience. However, these things have simply opened up a raw vein of concern and action that has been pulsing under the surface of rangatahi education for years.
A part of me says that leaving school is a good thing for some students. Especially for tāne. Especially for rangatahi who aren’t embraced by our education system. Especially for kids who aren’t truly known by their teachers or school leaders.
Most of them would really love to stay, to be part of something, to be safe and included. But most schools don’t offer this wonderful oasis of learning. And why would you stay in a place that doesn’t value you?
The usual party line tries to convince us that rangatahi are much better off in school, being offered a good mainstream education which will magically lead to a good career, a wonderful marriage, and the ability to buy a family home — and all the while supporting a whānau to grow and flourish in the land of milk and honey.
You know, succeeding in life.
There are kernels of truth in it, but to many it’s a big fat lie. I think teenagers have cottoned on to this and they’re bursting out of schools as though the old education artery has finally clotted up and failed. Good on those ex-students and their whānau for believing in themselves and not waiting for “the system” to either deliver or kick them out.
However, it’s also true that some of those same rangatahi (almost exclusively those with limited support networks) are falling into an abyss of confusion, violence and, in some cases, suicide. They’re acquiescing, but at what cost?
Bronte Metekingi recently wrote a great article about it on Stuff, showing the perspective of recent high school students.
Their voices ring out clearly — not that people in the Ministry of Education are listening. Nor, for that matter, many of those who manage our mainstream schools, some teachers, the establishment, society, businesses. It’s all too hard to hear.
Our communities hear the same thing day after day from whānau and friends: school is irrelevant. And it’s failing too many of our tamariki.
Our schools should be paving the way towards aroha, self-love, creativity, whakawhānaungatanga, and love of community. Instead, they breed boredom and isolation. They set up pathways to shame and poverty — and they add to an underclass of missed potential.
It seems to be worse in the provinces. We have a major problem in Hawke’s Bay. I talk to counsellors, teachers, board members, social services, kaumātua, as well as whānau. We see and hear the same things. Mainstream secondary schools can be hell. Especially for brown people.
For the past two years, I’ve been working with two whistleblowers at a secondary school (a former teacher and a former board member) who’ve identified and called out illegal stand-downs and suspensions for blatant targeting of Māori and generally brown students.
A law specialist said our community has been continually failed. Some of these school actions are called “Kiwi Suspensions”. This is when students are stood down and sent home for a day or a week, without being formally notified. They may be asked to leave school voluntarily or offered the leaving form. Pressure can be put on parents to let their children leave before they’re suspended officially. It mainly happens around misdemeanours like swearing, general disobedience, smoking, or just being teenagers.
Remember, if an incident is extremely bad (such as fighting or other violence), rangatahi are usually expelled or suspended and that goes through a school’s board of trustees. No one is challenging those processes to manage extreme violence. Kiwi suspensions are different, though, and much more unhelpful and insidious.
As Nicholas Pole, the chief executive of ERO (Education Review Office), has said:
“High levels of exclusion and stand-downs were often linked to poor practices in schools.
“Often it is a manifestation of the quality of teaching, the quality of leadership, the quality of governance, practices and systems in the school and a lack of that collective teacher efficacy where teachers are working together to make sure every single learner is successful.”
And the Ministry of Education has this observation:
“Stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions are not measures of student behaviour but measures of a school’s reaction to behaviour. What one school may choose to suspend for another may not.
“Suspension and expulsion data clearly show that Māori and Pasifika students are over-represented (across Aotearoa).
“‘Realising Māori learners’ potential does not ask for or require a special response but rather a professional response. It is about commitment to doing better with what we have, not compliance, nor complacency. We all need to be working together to reduce this over-representation.”
Our whānau group is trying to bring attention to a student who was “Kiwi-suspended” many times (remember, this is illegal) and asked to “voluntarily” leave school at 15. This is not disputed. She was failed by the education system from start to finish. She asked to come back to college, desperate to be part of something. Wanting to learn and be with others her age. She was denied. Less than four months later, she committed suicide. I still cry for this kōtiro.
We’ve been to the top and back and everywhere in between, including to the Teacher’s Council and the minister AND the Ministry of Education, and the best we’ve achieved is a whānau reconciliation meeting where the clear message was that we should just move on. I can’t say more because the case is still with the coroner.
Can I ask you to think about this? Students vape in the school toilets, maybe say “Eff you”, possibly talk in class — and they’re stood down and usually sent home for days. There’s no letter to the parents, the BOT isn’t notified, and eventually those students may be kicked out of education altogether. The blame is put squarely on the student and their whānau. They’re held fully accountable.
On the other hand, a community tries to hold a school accountable for failing a student who then killed herself . . . and, there’s nothing. Nothing happens. Nada. Zilch. Not one thing changes. Nobody is held to account. Not one principal. Not one board member. No one. The balance of power is off, here.
There are thousands of illegal Kiwi suspensions that are never recorded — nobody knows this except the whānau who are already feeling whakamā and usually say nothing.
The teenage son of a friend has been trying to stay at school. But he’s been “stood down” from a particular college for the fifth time. The fifth time. Not suspended. Not expelled. His behaviour is not violent. It is simply teenage-y. This kid is a greenie and advocates for the environment. He could build anything, talk about anything, solve the world’s problems probably.
His father is asking school management for his son to be officially suspended so he can make a case of unfair and illegal stand-downs to the board of trustees. The school management won’t comply, and instead offer the leaving form. They’re not interested in his story. They don’t want the hassle of having to explain their position. He’s just another clot in the system.
Let’s face it. Some schools find it tough to deal with swearing or vaping teenagers who are also trying to deal with questions about Covid, climate change, war, racism, sexism, identity-phobia, relationships, poverty, nuclear war, and don’t forget TikTok plus the General Anxiety of growing up.
This is not to say that every rangatahi swears or vapes. They don’t. I didn’t when I was at college. I was shy, academic, pleasant, and I tried hard. Yet I was still targeted by teachers who hadn’t taken the time to get to know me. By teachers who just saw my brown skin.
One teacher accused me of graffitiing on the school desk. I’ll never forget his raging eyes as he screamed and screamed at me, as I spluttered and tried to deny and reason with him. I put my head on the desk in fear and humiliation and silently cried.
I hadn’t been graffitiing on the desk. I was sitting in the front row, being a good student, taking down notes about Keynesian economics.
I came to see that what I’d experienced would never happen to the farmers’ kids, or the business-people’s kids, or any Pākehā kids in my classes. This targeting, profiling, and stereotyping still happens in secondary schools to this day — and it seems to be getting worse. I feel for rangatahi at many of our mainstream schools. As one student said, it really is hell.
The education ministry’s own studies show that many of the most successful high schools in Aotearoa encourage a strengths-based approach and sort out these misdemeanour acts on school grounds, with well-known teaching best practice.
Teachers, principals, vice principals or assistant principals talk to the students who’ve stuffed up and turn the situation into a teachable moment. They relate, redirect, empathise, listen, mentor, encourage, help.
Unfortunately, ideal (or even average) mentoring and management of teenage students doesn’t happen consistently at every secondary school. Far from it.
Take a look at the Education Counts website and see which schools have higher percentages of stand-downs and suspensions of brown kids compared to white. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to majority brown schools, but that’s another story.)
It happens all the time. The ministry knows this. School principals know this, teachers know this. Yet the rhetoric and narrative constantly is framed to blame our kids.
Our rangatahi are being punished for being young, which shows a failure of imagination and a lack of heart.
Sure, they were swearing and vaping and being defiant. But young people have been giving their elders a hard time since forever — or at least since 470 BC, when Socrates complained that children “have bad manners, contempt for authority . . . show disrespect for elders”, and were tyrants who “contradict their parents” and “tyrannise their teachers”.
I have no time for arguments that defend below-average teaching practice. It’s not an excuse. I have no time for arguments that say teenagers are too hard to handle. Fix the problem. Resource education properly. Don’t worry about paying for limestone cycle tracks — pay schools and teachers to be better. Pay the system to work.
What we need is more professional development, less judgment of our children. More listening to academic recommendations, less doing things the way they’ve always been done. More respect for rangatahi, less racism and judgment.
Did you know that when a heart attack occurs, new veins will grow around the dead piece of heart wall? To keep the blood flowing. To keep life pumping. That’s what our rangatahi are doing when either targeted to leave, or voluntarily leaving mainstream schools. They’re surviving.
If you’re an adult walking alongside them at any stage of their journey, please just talk to them. Listen. Get to know them and their dreams for their future. Their answers may surprise you.
Get to know your rights as rangatahi and whānau here: https://youthlaw.co.nz/rights/school/problems-at-school/kicked-out-of-school/
Shelley Burne-Field (Sāmoa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Rārua, Pākehā) is a kaituhituhi from Te Matau-a-Māui Hawke’s Bay. She writes articles and creative non-fiction as well as short stories. She is an alumni of the Master of Creative Writing programme, Auckland University 2020, and also Te Papa Tupu mentoring programme. Her story Speaking in Tongues was the only New Zealand Finalist in the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her story Pinching out Dahlias is the most read short story published in Newsroom’s Reading Room. More of her writing can be found here.
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