Sunday, January 10, 2016

Tension over School Discipline Part II

In my last post, Tension over School Discipline, (Part I of this series of posts), I wrote about the changeover in St. Paul school board members resulting, in part, from discipline concerns in St. Paul. The replacement of board members resulted, in part, because teachers and parents were fed up with the failure of district disciplinary policies to protect students and teachers from classroom and school disruptions.  In that post, I explained some of the reasons why school districts like St. Paul are trying to reduce out of school suspensions and replace the suspension-based paradigm with a more positive effective school atmosphere that keeps kids in school. But the problem is that some school districts are executing these policies in ways that seem to send the message that the rights of obedient students are inferior to the disobedient.  When that happens, chaos ensues, teachers begin to look for other employment, and many families migrate elsewhere.

Out of school suspensions represent the school's failure to reach a particular student, and they perpetuate that student’s failure. They interrupt the student’s education, and the suspended  student typically needs more time in school, not less.  Out of school suspensions reinforce the student’s cycle of failure; they evidence the inability of the school’s efforts to convince the student to behave; they send the student to environments that reinforce bad behavior; they sometimes represent the first step into the juvenile justice system; and they impact a disproportionate number of students who have educational disadvantages.    So let’s start by agreeing that keeping students in school is an important objective:  the issue is whether strategies to keep kids in school destroy the safe, supportive, learning focused environment that teachers and other students deserve and in fact, the school environment which is their constitutional and statutory right. 

If out of school suspensions are damaging to the student, why then do schools ever suspend or expel students?  Of course, the straightforward answer is to protect the in-school environment, to show other students that high disciplinary expectations are in-force and that the rights of students who play by the rules come first.   Suspensions support teachers’ ability to set high disciplinary standards and spend valuable classroom time bearing down on learning activities.   

My own school district’s disciplinary policy (Administrative Procedure 506A) emphasizes this point by granting the classroom teacher the authority to remove a student from class:
Teachers have the responsibility of managing disruptive student behavior by explicitly teaching behavioral expectations; maximizing academic engagement and success; and by responding to disruptive behavior through means such as conferring with the student, implementing proactive behavioral supports, or contacting the student’s parents. When such measures fail, or when the teacher determines it is otherwise appropriate based upon the student’s conduct, the teacher shall have the authority to remove the student from class…… St. Cloud Administrative Procedure 506A 
Most school districts honor the right of the classroom teacher to remove a student from classroom.  The battle in St. Paul and other large-city districts centers on whether a student removed from class for disruptive behavior is allowed to return without consequence, or without convincing the principal that the disruptive behavior will not re-occur.  Teachers in St. Paul, and many parents and students, were complaining that the district was undermining high behavioral standards by placing the right of the mis-behaving student to stay in school above the rights of other students to have a disruption free school environment.   Once parents and students begin to believe that disruptive students’ rights are superior to other students, chaos ensues. 

I focused my last post on St. Paul, because it has been in the news, and recent events demonstrate the potential for push-back when a poorly considered paradigm is installed that fails to protect the classroom and hallways from disruptions.  But I might have selected other school districts as well, because this this issue has created concern in Districts across the country.
Here are some snippets taken from articles about challenges in the Denver public school system:
With a rising din of complaints from teachers about increasing discipline problems in Denver classrooms, district officials Monday updated the school board on plans to pump $1.5 million into mental health services for students next year, create a new out-of-school suspension option and add additional programming for troubled students.   Discipline concerns flare in Denver schools (Chalkbeat, May 14, 2013)  The aim of the discipline policy, revised in recent years, is to reduce in-school or out-of-school suspensions and expulsions so that students can continue to be in a learning environment. It also aims to erase the longstanding disparity between white students and students of color in terms of consequences for student misbehavior.
Following changes in disciplinary approaches, many Denver teachers complained that classroom control in some schools was getting out of hand:
On March 20, 60 Bruce Randolph Middle School teachers, office staff and custodians sent a letter to Superintendent Tom Boasberg complaining about the policy. And 44 staff and teachers at Morey Middle School sent a letter the following day expressing similar concerns.  “The disproportionate amount of time and resources that in the past would have been spent on improving instruction is instead spent by our entire staff, including administrators, instructional team, support staff, and teachers on habitually disruptive students that continually return to our classrooms,” the letter from the teachers at Bruce Randolph states. “This has now reached a critical point.”
As of 2015, in Denver, these concerns still persist.  See Denver teachers union survey puts spotlight on student discipline issues – (Colorado Public Radio, March 2015)
A third of Denver teachers surveyed about behavior issues in class say they don’t feel safe in their own schools.  That’s according to a new survey on discipline (full survey) by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing Denver teachers.   Sixty percent of the teachers said behavior and discipline problems have had a negative impact on the teacher's mental health. "The mental health piece, I think, is huge," McRoberts said.  Almost 60 percent of those surveyed would hesitate to send their own child to their school because of discipline issues.  A third reported being instructed to follow questionable discipline reporting practices. And almost 80 percent said they are losing planning time because of discipline problems in the classroom. ….The union says it decided ask the questions about discipline after hearing from teachers that there are problems. But the district’s superintendent questions the reliability of the survey and says school safety is the top priority in the district…
 I don’t pretend to be an expert on St. Paul, or Denver,  but it seems to me that there are lessons to be learned from the chaos that ensued in St. Paul.  St. Paul leadership, I think, failed to recognize that an important pillar of any school, is that students and teachers must have faith that the school will provide them with a safe, largely disruption-free classroom and school atmosphere.   As discussed in Part I, there is overwhelming evidence that students benefit when this atmosphere is maintained through a positive, supportive, process which keeps all students in school, save in rare exceptions, and when discipline is achieved not through punishment but through a culture of positive behavior. 

            What is bringing this issue to the forefront in so many districts?  Here are some of the factors. Each of them is a complex issue in its own right, but often well-meaning school administrators attempt to sweep these problems away with simplistic solutions based upon theoretical ideas and slogans that appeal to advocacy groups, editorial boards, and sometimes school boards, who lack an appreciation of how difficult it is to manage a classroom when confronted by one or more of the few students who persist, despite all efforts, in disrupting the learning environment.
  • There is increasing pressure from State and Federal Government, from advocacy groups, and the media to close the achievement gap, and increasing attacks on the schools, districts and superintendents for not making adequate progress.  Often the leadership becomes convinced that keeping more students in school all the time is essential to meet state and national goals, but they aren't willing to (or lack) the resources necessary to keep students in school while protecting teachers and students from disruption. 
  • More students are coming to school without the skills and attitudes that we traditionally expect as essential for success in school.    The higher expectations, and the perception that schools and teachers are failing them can make it difficult to motivate, can cause some students to drop-out emotionally and intellectually
  • Consulting groups often sell school administrators silver bullet solutions, such as PBIS, restorative justice, culturally responsive teaching, white privilege and anti-racism training, parent involvement, without pairing these programs with a plan to deal with students who fail to respond appropriately.  Some of these programs are predicated on the theory that if teachers do a better job teaching, and if schools do a better job of responding to students’ needs, the issue of discipline will be resolved, but no program, no matter how fantastic, will eliminate the need for dealing with unruly students.  
  • There is pressure by some advocates for students with behavioral disabilities to keep them in the classroom, even when their behavior is disruptive. Disability law does not exempt students with disabilities from behavioral standards, but unfortunately, some advocates treat them as if they are.
  • A small group of students do not readily respond to the strategies designed to keep all students in the classroom.  Some students come homes where punitive discipline is the norm, or no discipline is the norm, and positive persuasive discipline may be perceived as weak and ineffectual.  Some students have disabilities or psychiatric problems that actually exacerbate poor behavior when they are exposed to the stimulus of 25 active kids in a classroom.  Some students are just flat out angry at the world, some for very good reason.  If  a few students get away with disrupting the class, less aggressive students live in fear that they will be themselves the victims of these aggressive students.  Or, they may conclude that they need to act disruptive to remain in favor with these powerful students. Or, they may conclude that there is no reason to obey, because obedience is not rewarded and disobedience has no consequence.  

  • There is a shortage of teachers who come from the same ethnic, racial, or cultural background of a growing number of students.   This exacerbates a perception that possibly certain students are dealt with more harshly based on race, ethnicity or class, and it leaves some students without an adult role model with whom they identify and who can encourage proper behavior. 
  • Some superintendents and front office administrators charged with disciplinary implementation are emotionally and intellectually disconnected from the classroom.   When this happens, they may buy into flashy new programs that actually create chaos in the classroom, and when reports work their way up through the union or courageous principals, that the new program is not working, they may refuse to listen or hear.  They may say: Teachers are lazy and don’t want to take on the difficult students; they aren’t implementing my program with fidelity; they need more training; they are reflecting their white privileged status, and so on.
  • Some of well-meaning programs fail to provide adequate staffing to provide in-school alternatives.  More staffing may be perceived as diverting scarce revenues from teachers salaries.  While all unions say that they want more discipline, in some districts they make wage demands that drive out budgeting for needed staff support.   At bargaining time, it is not unusual to hear teacher representatives tell the public that the District should stop spending money on people who aren’t classroom teachers. 
  • Educators and advocates are concerned with what they describe as “disproportionate” suspensions impacting students of color more severely.   For example, after a review of suspension statistics, then Minneapolis Superintendent Johnson implemented a no-suspension policy for students in the first grade or younger, announced a front office of review of suspensions which (in her view) were impacting higher grade students disproportionately, and promised to close the racial suspension gap by 2018.  See  Washington Post November 26, 2014.
As stated above, it cannot possibly argued that kicking students out of school, even for a few days, is better for the student who has been disruptive or violent.  Ideally, students should stay in school:  the issue is whether it is possible to control school grounds, hallways, and classrooms when out of school suspension is ruled out in every case.  

The issue is what do we do when students fail to meet those expectations, and despite a teacher’s best efforts to use positive supportive techniques, a student disobeys and disrupts in ways that undermines the teacher’s classroom control. 

There are some folks who argue that disruptive behavior is a symptom of conditions and life experience inflicted unfairly on children, such as racism, abuse, disability, dysfunctional home environments, dysfunctional neighborhoods, poverty, or cultural differences not appreciated by a white privileged system.   Therefore, they argue, teachers should be forced to accommodate disruptive students in their classrooms and make adjustments in their teaching approach.   Many of these folks, I would argue, have never been responsible for teaching a classroom with disruptive students, and some of them frankly send their own students to schools that refuse to admit disruptive students.   Sometimes disciplinary dialogues view this issue as if the only person impacted by disciplinary policies is the student who breaks the rules.

In many major urban schools, the students most negatively impacted by relaxed disciplinary policies are themselves students trying to overcome the achievement gap.   The other students, the ones playing by the rules, bearing down, and seeking to navigate the road to college and career, are students who need more instructional time, who more than others, need a learning environment free of fear and disruption.   When we allow urban school discipline to deteriorate, we are denying these students their constitutional and statutory right to a quality education.    These students, above all, need a classroom environment where the teacher doesn’t have to spend the first ten minutes of class dealing with the few obstructionist students who are engaged in a daily power contest with the teacher.  

So how can we markedly reduce out-of-school-suspensions while protecting the rights of students to a disruption free learning-focused environment.    That’s a topic for future posts.

See: St. Paul Supt. Silva sends more staff into schools to address misbehavior 
See: More on Minneapolis incident

Jerry Von Korff is an attorney at the Rinke-Noonan Law firm.  He's  been a member of the St. Cloud School Board since 2004, where he has served as chair, vice chair, finance chair and in an number of other capacities.   This post represents Jerry's own views.  Before practicing law, Jerry got his Masters in Teaching, helped start an upward bound program, and taught social studies and math in Washington, DC and New York.   

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