Tyler Dowsett hated school so much she says she did everything she could to get out of there.
“I was severely bullied through primary and high school just because of who I am and what I look like,” the 15-year-old said.
“It drove me to want to get out of school as fast as I could. I ended up getting suspended.”
Instead of sitting at home, waiting out her punishment, Tyler took up the offer to attend Rise, a mentoring and education program for suspended high school students in Sydney’s Campbelltown area.
The program has been running for two years, helping students catch up on missed classes, do homework, and linking them up with employers and training opportunities.
After several months in Rise, Tyler now wants to go to university and study criminology.
“I feel a tonne better. Doing Rise and moving out of the mainstream schooling and stuff has just lifted my self-esteem and lifted what I thought I could do and what I thought I could achieve,” she said.
“I thought I was just going to be a C grade student for the rest of my life and not get a good job but now I’ve just sky rocketed.”
Jamie Morris, 13, is attending the Rise program after becoming involved in a series of fights at his local high school.
He’s been working on changing the way he responds to other children in Year 7.
“I’ve learnt that mainly if someone says something to you, if you know that’s not true then just walk away,” he said.
Rise is run by the Sydney Community Foundation and White Lion, a charity working with disadvantaged communities. The program began after residents in the Claymore area became concerned by the number of suspended students hanging around in parks and at home.
“They were just stuck at home on their Play Stations, wandering around, roaming, not doing anything and their parents didn’t know what to do with their kids,” local resident Julie Jarrett, said.
Rise teacher and mentor Brigitte Glover is not convinced that suspending students from school changes their behaviour for the better.
“There’s always a reason that someone’s not succeeding, whether its motivation, mental health or trauma or poverty,” she said.
“My focus is to find out what that reason is and support that person by building on their strengths.”
Calls for punishment rethink
There are no national statistics for the number of students suspended from Australian high schools because of the range of education departments and school sectors across the country.
What’s clear is that far more boys than girls are suspended and the highest rate of suspension happens in junior high school between the ages of 13 and 16.
A recent report from the National Institute of Criminology on school suspension in Australia called for a rethink on the use of suspension as a way of managing student behaviour.
“There is now sufficient evidence to suggest that school suspension is not an effective approach to reducing student misbehaviour, consistent with many studies that show punishment does not work,” the report said.
Some children who take part in the Rise program return to their schools after a few weeks, others end up staying on part-time, doing a few days a week at school and a few days at Rise.
Others never return to the regular classroom and instead complete their schooling through distance education.
“I’m really proud of the group of young people at Rise,” Ms Glover said.
“I’m proud of the way they are willing to make the change to make their lives better.
“If you are starting from a background of trauma or poverty or abuse you are not starting on a level playing field with everyone else.”
Not all students who are referred to the Rise program from local high schools engage with the program.
About half of the students referred to Rise participate in the class, the remainder attend Special Purpose Schools for suspended students or continue to be suspended from school.
Watch the story and debate on school suspension on Lateline tonight at 9.30pm on ABC News or 10.30pm on ABC TV.