Is It Time to End Suspension as the 'Go-To' Punishment in Schools?
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For low-income students and students of color, suspensions and other harsh punishments too often disconnect them from school. Studies have shown suspensions and expulsions are applied disproportionately to these groups, with black students frequently punished for less-severe rule violations than white students. Students of color also routinely face punishment for more subjective offenses such as showing disrespect, loitering or being too noisy, while their white counterparts face punishment for more objective infractions like vandalism or smoking.
These trends can be reversed, fortunately. In Baltimore four years ago, the percentage of African-American male students who dropped out nearly equaled that of those who graduated—48.4 percent and 51.6 percent, respectively. By last year, with efforts to reduce suspensions ongoing, those figures shifted dramatically to 74.9 percent graduating versus 25.1 percent dropping out.
“The issue is described as reducing suspensions,” Brice says, “but really the larger focus is keeping young people in school.”
Bringing in the Change
How to reverse a school culture that has become too reliant on disciplinary policy and not enough on student-adult relationships? In the classroom, teachers must have the training and skills to deal with disruptive students before any disruption takes place. At the district-wide level, administrators Brice and Di Donato offer these key ingredients they believe are necessary to bring about needed change:
The effort must be district-wide and district-supported, with community connections.
“Community will is essential,” Brice says. The Baltimore effort, for example, included teachers and administrators, parents, representatives from local philanthropic groups, community-based youth-advocacy groups and other nonprofits, and government officials.
It must be a K-12 effort. Starting in middle or high school is too late.
In Bridgeport, students in early elementary grades are offered small rewards for positive behavior. Di Donato recalls a decisive moment when one fifth-grader declined the incentive. “He said, ‘You don’t have to give me that’ because he hadn’t done anything special; he was just doing the right thing to do. That student entered middle school with strong skills to be successful.”
Di Donato says the district also seeks to provide a solid bridge between middle school and high school. For the first two days of school each year, all middle school guidance counselors are present on the high school campuses. The idea is to put familiar faces in place to ease incoming students into the next phase of schooling.
Discipline codes must be reviewed, adjusted and implemented uniformly and consistently.
At Bridgeport, the former “Code of Discipline” was revised into the new “Code of Conduct.” That one-word change in the title illustrates Bridgeport’s shift away from solely focusing on punishing negative behaviors toward encouraging positive behaviors.
In Baltimore, the code was revised following a process that included several meetings seeking public input. The district subsequently held summer training sessions to prepare educators for its implementation that fall.
“It’s the ‘McDonald’s plan,’” Brice says. “The French fries taste the same at any McDonald’s you go to, and with 200 different schools in our district, we want our approach to discipline to be consistent and fair, no matter what school you attend.”
Professional development must be part of the process.
Both Bridgeport and Baltimore have embraced Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a broad-based approach to improving student behavior that is in place at thousands of schools nationwide. Developed at the University of Oregon, PBIS has been proven to reduce office referral rates by up to 50 percent a year, improve attendance and academic achievement, and reduce dropout rates. PBIS isn’t learned in one professional development session. It’s a school- or district-wide approach toward behavior management that needs to be practiced, refined and sustained.
Baltimore started PBIS in 30 schools and now has it operating in more than 90 schools, with plans to expand to all 200 schools in the district.
In Bridgeport, the district secured grant funding to provide PBIS-focused professional development. Di Donato describes PBIS in admittedly simplified terms: “It teaches adults to be thoughtful mentors, and it teaches young people the social skills they need to be successful.”
Plans and actions must be data-driven.
Incident numbers can help identify excessive out-of-school suspensions, and numbers can help illustrate the disproportionate impact of suspensions on students of color. Data must be part of the solution.
Weekly, data-driven meetings at individual schools allow administrators and educators to track progress and identify areas for improvement. If 12 out of 15 discipline incidents in one particular week occur in the cafeteria, for example, school leaders can focus on the need for more structure or supervision during lunch periods.
“Reviewing the data on a weekly basis causes us to ask questions,” Brice says. “From these questions, we can develop intervention strategies that are more effective than they would be without the data. It also leads to solutions that can be replicated in other schools.”
Tracking data also helps identify successes. At Bridgeport four years ago, the number of out-of-school suspensions was approaching 12,000. Last year, that number had been reduced by two-thirds, to about 4,000. “That’s a significant drop, and it’s a direct result of the work we’ve done,” Di Donato says. “But 4,000 is still way too many.”
Reprinted with permission of Teaching Tolerance.