More than 9000 school days have been missed by Canberra's most troubled students during the past three years while they have been formally suspended from ACT government schools.
New figures released through the ACT government's freedom of information process reveal a total of 4543 suspensions were handed down between January 2013 and July 2015 for a variety of reasons, including students being aggressive, disruptive, verbally or physically abusive or intimidating other students or staff.
Contrary to perception about the reasons for student suspensions, drugs and alcohol use contributed to a very small percentage of formal sanctions – less than 5 per cent each. Similarly, social media bullying contributed to just 0.5 per cent of suspensions despite anti-cyber bullying campaigns being an increasingly big focus in schools.
No students, meanwhile, have been permanently excluded or expelled from ACT government schools during that same period.
An ACT Education spokeswoman said permanent exclusion of students from Canberra public schools was allowed for under the Education Act 2004 and by Education Directorate policy.
"In practice, however, schools do not exclude students but work with the student and family to support them to improve their behaviour, and to ensure the appropriate education arrangements for the student".
She noted the purpose of suspending a student was to allow them "time to reflect on their behaviour, to allow sufficient time to put in place appropriate arrangements to support the student upon their return and to allow time to restore the school to its usual working environment".
When a student was suspended they were provided with "meaningful work to cover the time that they are away".
"Suspension is not done lightly. Generally, students will receive ample warning that continued poor behaviour may result in suspension. There will be times, however, when a principal will need to take immediate action. Students who display continuing poor behaviour are supported by their schools in an attempt to improve their behaviour."
According to raw data from the ACT Education Directorate, the vast majority of suspensions included the element of aggressive behaviour, at 98 per cent.
Disruptive behaviour contributed to 55 per cent of suspensions, and verbal and physical abuse contributed to 49 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.
Sexual behaviour contributed to just under 5 per cent of suspensions, smoking contributed to 3.4 per cent, drug use to 3 per cent and alcohol to just 1 per cent.
The category of bullying contributed to 25 per cent of all suspensions, with verbal bullying and physical bullying each constituting nearly 11 per cent of cases.
Students intimidating other students or staff was a contributing factor in 31 per cent of suspensions, while vandalism contributed to 9.4 per cent, and stealing to 1.7 per cent.
The vast majority of suspensions – 45 per cent – were for only a day. Another 32 per cent were for two days, 13 were for three days and 5 per cent were for five days.
There were six 15-day suspensions, which appear to be for the most serious behaviours crossing numerous categories, including one suspension of a student involved in aggressive, disruptive, verbal, and sexual transgressions as well as intimidation, drugs, and verbal and cyber bullying.
A tally of suspensions by month shows the start of the school year in February is one that has the fewest suspensions.
By March suspensions rise to an average of more than 200 a month across the government school system except in April, July, September, October and December – periods that coincide with school holidays.
Australian Education Union acting ACT branch secretary Andy Jennings noted that private school data relating to the number and cause of suspensions, as well as expulsion rates, were not publicly available.
"It would be better for the community to have full disclosure so full comparison can be made," Mr Jennings said.
"We should not be overly critical of government schools when a substantial comparable body of data on private schools is not publicly available," he said.
The union also endorsed the protocol of not expelling any student. "We support the idea that every child gets every possible chance. Expulsion just marginalises them and makes it more difficult for them to develop to their full potential."
"Suspensions form part of a broader strategy for kids to provide them and the school with respite and alternative strategies."