As states seek to reduce suspensions, schools look for ways to handle discipline
Administrators aim for balance between addressing racial disparities while still supporting teachers
The year before Sonia Stewart became principal at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, 88 students were arrested, often escorted off campus in handcuffs. But Stewart, who came to Nashville after working at one of Chicago’s community schools, had different beliefs about how to respond to behavior infractions.
“I came in immediately and said, ‘We are not kicking kids out of school,’” she says.
She trained the staff at the high-poverty, mostly African-American school on culturally responsive and trauma-informed practices and replaced some teachers with those who would adopt the core values of being “clear, consistent, positive and firm” in how they interact with students.
Teachers began to adopt classroom routines such as CHAMPS, which stands for conversation, help, activity, movement, participation and success. At each transition from one part of the class period to the next, students are reminded of the appropriate behavior. “You can’t hold kids to expectations that you didn’t tell them about,” Stewart says.
Teachers each have a “bounce buddy,” meaning another teacher on staff where they can send a student who has repeatedly been disruptive. Sometimes just 10 minutes in another classroom is enough to correct the behavior. The school also has a resiliency center for students who need more than just a “bounce.” Since 2012, the overall number of infractions has declined from 3,451 to 1,837, and suspensions have dropped from 1,121 to 253.
At the time, Stewart wasn’t under a district or state mandate to reduce out-of-school suspensions, but Tennessee will soon begin to track and rate schools on such data as part of its plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which now requires states to include a nonacademic or school climate indicator as part of its accountability system. Many administrators, however, are already being required to implement alternatives to out-of-school suspensions as states and districts seek to reduce the racial disparities in school discipline — what is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
In Texas, under a law passed this year, schools can no longer suspend students in pre-k through the second grade unless the cases involve drugs, weapons or extreme violence. California lawmakers are considering a measure that would extend the ban on out-of-school suspensions for disruption and willful defiance from third grade through fifth grade and add grades six through 12 to the ban on a pilot basis through 2023. And in West Virginia, the state Department of Education is also considering a policy that would make out-of-school suspensions, for anything other than the most severe offenses, count against a school’s attendance rates as part of its ESSA plan. The policy is meant to encourage districts to use alternative discipline approaches.
Getting students ‘to do the heavy lifting’
Efforts to find alternative consequences have increased in recent years in an effort to reduce the racial gaps that exist in school discipline practices. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data showing that black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
But administrators and experts note that it takes work to implement new models that teachers will support and that will truly result in students becoming accountable for their behavior. Administrators are sometimes caught between wanting to give students opportunities to correct their behavior and leaving teachers with the perception that they have “gone soft on discipline,” says Barbara Higgins Perez, who served as the director of student services for the Oceanside Unified School District and worked with colleague Barry Tyler to develop strategies to keep students from being sent away from school.
That’s why, she says, alternative approaches to discipline must involve “getting the kid to do the heavy lifting.” She adds that while training in restorative practices provides educators with the philosophy behind alternative models, teachers often don’t know “what it looks and sounds like” when they return to their classrooms.
She and Tyler founded Blue Water Educational Consulting, which has trained educators in several California counties to implement Alternatives to Suspension (ATS). ATS is a class taught by a teacher in which students who have violated the behavior code can spend up to five days working through the steps in a restorative curriculum — owning and recognizing the behavior, creating and implementing replacement strategies, making amends and then reintegrating into the classroom. The key, she says, is for teachers to know the replacement strategies so they can provide reminders when the students get back to their classrooms. It’s also important to “tend to that relationship” between the student and the teacher.
The Standard School District near Bakersfield is one of the districts that went to Blue Water to provide training for staff members to implement the ATS model. The first year was especially hard “because the program was top down,” says Superintendent Paul Meyers. Because he was new to the district, he says, “The staff kind of raised an eyebrow of doubt.”
In addition to implementing ATS, the district has also added lunchtime activity coordinators to organize games for students and supervision aides to better monitor students during recess. Suspensions and expulsions have dropped, but Meyer says, “more importantly and harder to measure is the improvement in the school climate.”
Perez says she can tell that the ATS program is gaining support among teachers when they start dropping by the ATS classroom to help their students with assignments. But she also notes that completing regular classwork is not the goal of ATS.
“We want the kids to sit and think and grapple and do some thoughtful writing,” she says, adding that while teachers also provide social-emotional support, ATS “can’t be fuzzy walls and unicorns.” Besides, she says, in her 20 years as an educator, she never once had a suspended student return to school with any completed assignments. Any academic work completed during ATS “is 100% better than what they would be doing at home,” she says.
Perez adds that if schools implement ATS but then continue to hold after-school or lunch detention programs, that’s an indication that they haven’t really bought into the restorative concept. ATS is also not just another name for in-school suspension where students serve time, so to speak, and don’t learn from their actions.
A 2016 report from WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, listed some elements that school leaders should consider when starting and trying to maintain restorative practices — most of which won’t be surprising to administrators. One is the issue of how to fund training for professional development or staff positions devoted to implementing the practices. The report suggested grant opportunities, Title I funding and partnerships with community organizations. Meyers used the flexibility provided by California’s Local Control Funding Formula, which replaced more restrictive categorical funding for specific programs.
ESSA also includes the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants program, which can be used for to “reduce the use of exclusionary discipline and promoting supportive school discipline.” This school year, however, states will receive much less funding from that program than was originally expected, Education Week reports.
The WestEd report also recommends that a district “integrate the [restorative justice] approach into its formal policy and procedures” and involve the entire school community in developing the discipline policy.
As part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools, Pearl-Cohn is also part of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s PASSAGE initiative, which stands for Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity. As part of PASSAGE, the district had to create a new student-parent handbook that clearly communicates students’ rights, responsibilities and the consequences for certain behaviors.
An article on the development of the handbook describes how code of conduct language can often contribute to the disparities in suspensions. The policy committee removed the vague phrase “conduct prejudicial to good order” to make offenses less ambiguous for educators, parents and students. The other large districts involved in PASSAGE are New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.
‘Before things escalate’
Advocacy for eliminating out-of-school suspension is also coming from students who may have encountered such policies in the past. Students for Education Reform (SFER) is a New York City-based group that involves college students interested in K-12 education issues in campaigns related to issues such as school climate, school choice and teacher quality.
“I think the model policy would prioritize prevention over reaction,” says Jeremy Knight, SFER’s communications director. “A lot of folks are saying what do we do with students once these incidents arrive. We also need to ask what are we doing even before things escalate?”
SFER would like to see more classroom management training for teachers as well as partnerships between schools and other agencies such as public safety and mental health. Such models at the early-childhood level have already proven to be successful at reducing expulsion.
“Preschool teachers who report access to a professional who can provide classroom-based supports regarding challenging behaviors report significantly fewer preschool expulsions as compared to teachers who report having no such support,” Walter Gilliam, an associate professor of child development at Yale University, wrote in a 2014 evaluation of such a program in Connecticut.
Similar examples also exist at the K-12 level in some districts, says Russell Skiba, a school psychology professor at Indiana University whose work focuses on reducing racial disparities in discipline. His local Monroe County Community School Corporation has a district behavioral specialist available to teachers, he says, and many examples exist in which schools or districts form partnerships with mental health providers.
The importance of involving parents
While the Texas law banning suspensions of young children for lower-level infractions passed this year, the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) began exploring last year why some of its elementary schools were not suspending any children in the early grades. Gail-David Dupree, the executive director of student discipline for DISD, heard a common theme — communication with families.
“I think the biggest thing that came out was parent involvement,” Dupree says. “We had some principals who would go to a student’s house” and talk with parents about how to prevent behavior problems.
Meanwhile, the district was beginning to implement a new social-emotional learning curriculum and is now training teachers to teach students stress-relieving strategies and how to verbalize when something — or someone — sets them off.
“We’re teaching students to identify within themselves what is causing them to react to situations,” says Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, the director of special projects in the district’s Teaching and Learning department. Teachers, she says, are also modeling how to calmly respond to an offense, by making statements such as “I’m not happy you did that. I need to take a minute and cool down.”
Skiba agrees that blanket mandates against suspensions may initially leave teachers feeling unsupported by administrators if they don’t have strategies for handling infractions at the classroom level. In fact, passing laws against suspensions could be a “recipe for chaos,” he says, if educators don’t have “sufficient resources.”
At Pearl-Cohn, the shift in culture has been a five-year journey. But now, Stewart says, students are the ones speaking up if they see behavior that goes against school rules.
“Now we’ve gotten to a place where you can literally tell who the transfer students are,” she says. “The kids will say, ‘We don’t do that here.’”
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