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Closing the school-to-prison pipeline

Districts innovate around behavior as zero-tolerance discipline falls into disfavor
A Grand Rapids Public Schools interventionist sits with students on an academic assignment while also discussing cooperation and working together—illustrating the teaching component to the restorative justice discipline method.
A Grand Rapids Public Schools interventionist sits with students on an academic assignment while also discussing cooperation and working together—illustrating the teaching component to the restorative justice discipline method.

There are certain “points” that Kings Junior High School students don’t want to get.

Educators at the suburban Cincinnati school—part of the Kings Local School District—can give “behavior intervention points” to students who are disrespectful, refuse to do work or act out in other ways. Four points in one quarter triggers a parent-teacher conference.

By eight points, parents and the students will have also met with administrators about the issue. And at 12 points, students are put on lunch detention and have to attend Friday after-school sessions for the rest of the quarter, according to Vice Principal Dave Winebrenner.

“Certainly, if a student violated a weapons or drugs law, they’re going to face the maximum and probably face legal charges as well,” Winebrenner says. “But we want to be practical if a little first grader points his finger at a kid, and someone says he was pretending he was going to shoot them and he should be expelled.”

A key to the system is that all the information on the student’s behavior is kept in one place. All the intervention points, discipline reports written by teachers and records from parent meetings are compiled in a computer database developed by PublicSchoolWorks. When administrators have easy access to a student’s full behavior record, they can intervene earlier, share the information with parents, and decide whether the students needs a warning, detention or suspension, Winebrenner says.

Over the several years the system has been in place, students are accumulating fewer behavior points, Winebrenner says. The program is one way Kings Junior High is moving away from zero-tolerance discipline policies widely adopted by U.S. schools in the wake of the Columbine shooting in 1999.

Districts urged to reduce suspensions

Two major reports released this year have encouraged school district leaders to drastically reduce the number of students who are suspended.

Both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of State Governments Justice Center have found that students are often suspended for minor infractions and that minority students are far more likely to be removed from school.

Both reports also warn of the academic harm done to students when they are removed from school for extended periods of time without access to instruction.

“If the consequence of suspending or expelling students is to put them further behind their classmates, then you’re only going to exacerbate problem with those students,” says Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Frequently, some of the students who are disciplined in that way are the ones who most require the structure and the oversight you get in school.”

The reports, which offer a range of recommendations for more equitable and flexible discipline policies that keep students in school, can be found here:

Council of State Governments Justice Center:

U.S. Department of Education:

And Kings is not alone: Districts large and small, urban and rural, are revamping discipline as increasing numbers of experts and educators find that zero-tolerance—and widespread suspension and expulsion—has been ineffective and even discriminatory.

“Zero-tolerance started as a way of dealing with more serious weapons or drug cases,” says Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “It morphed into a system where kids with relatively small misbehaviors—shoving or things like that—are referred to police or kicked out of school.”

Restorative justice

“Restorative justice” has been a key disciplinary phrase in Denver Public Schools since about 2007, when the district began backing away from zero-tolerance policies imposed throughout Colorado after Columbine.

“It (zero tolerance) wasn’t improving the individual students who were engaging in behavior that was inappropriate and it wasn’t improving the sense that schools had of being safe and productive learning environments,” says Eldridge Greer, the director of Denver schools’ office of social-emotional learning. “Zero-tolerance also really brought to light that there were profound disparities in terms of students of color who were ensnared in discipline in ways that other racial populations weren’t.”

Each district school has at least one “RA coordinator,” a teacher or staff member trained in the restorative approach. A student who, for instance, disrupts class won’t be immediately referred to administrators but instead will have a special meeting with the teacher, the RA coordinator and selected classmates, who can describe the fear or anxiety caused by the disruption. The student also has an opportunity to describe what was behind the behavior—such as trouble at home.

“It allows the students to understand the damage that they’ve caused and allows the victims to express how they have been impacted—and that has served as a more educative foundation so the majority of students don’t become involved in discipline and don’t go down the slippery slope of the school-to-jail track,” Greer says.

Recent studies conducted by the district show students disciplined through a restorative approach were less likely to be suspended than were students who didn’t go through the RA process. And while the district’s enrollment increased from about 77,000 to 83,000 between 2008 and 2012, the number of suspensions dropped from about 6,100 to 4,900, Greer says.

“We’ve actively minimized the use of out-of-school removal—whether that’s suspension, expulsion or referral to law enforcement—to really those behaviors that statutorily are dangerous situations for the kids and adults in the building,” Greer says.

Truancy circles

This year, Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan is piloting restorative justice in an elementary school, a pre-K through 8 school and a middle school in a part of the city with a higher rate of suspensions.

“Suspensions don’t work—if you put a kid out for 10 days, what is that kid doing during those 10 days? Chances are, not much,” says Natasha Neal, the district’s student reform supervisor. “But if we can figure out the problem and how to repair the harm—and have the student take responsibility for their actions—we’re hoping the data will show the student is less likely to reoffend.”

In one case, a behavior consultant works with a group of middle school girls who had been fighting and arguing on social media. The goal is to help them realize how their behavior fed the conflict and, hopefully, have them figure out ways to “co-exist” at school, Neal says. The district also is testing “truancy circles” where administrators, parents and students can have a meeting to talk about the impacts that missing class has on the student and the wider school community, Neal adds.

Cases of theft and vandalism also are suitable for restorative justice because students can be shown the damage they’ve done and taught to fix it, Neal says. “People think restorative is being soft on crime—I don’t think that’s the case,” she says. “Not only do we want to change the way students interact, we really want to change the way administrators, teachers and parents react to student behavior and the way adults approach discipline.”

Discipline as learning

The Maryland State Board of Education in July approved new discipline guidelines for public districts as part of a multi-year reform effort aimed at reducing out-of-school suspensions and ending discrimination. The process began about five years ago when the board realized discipline policies varied widely across the state, and that students were being suspended for minor, non-violent offenses but receiving almost no educational services or counseling while they were out of school, says board member James DeGraffenreidt.

“What we were trying to accomplish was to get to a place where disciplinary interventions were viewed as an opportunity for remedial efforts in furtherance of a student’s development and education,” DeGraffenreidt says.

The board also found that black students were given more severe discipline than were white students for the same behaviors. In one Maryland district, black students who made up 30 percent of the population received 60 percent of the suspensions for non-violent behavior. “We saw that same pattern in multiple counties,” he says.

Disciplinary experts, administrators, local school boards and teachers were involved in developing the new guidelines, which direct Maryland district administrators to use suspensions only as a last resort. Instead, schools must establish a series of interventions—including the restorative justice approach and in-school suspensions where students can continue to receive instruction.

District leaders also have been told to eliminate racial disparities and reach out to community organizations that can provide further counseling or other support for students with behavior problems. When suspensions are issued, districts should provide homework and counseling to improve students’ chances of succeeding when they return to school.

By eliminating zero tolerance policies, the state guidelines allow administrators greater ability to exercise their judgment when they make disciplinary decisions, DeGraffenreid says. “We’ve made it clear that zero-tolerance has zero place in the state of Maryland,” he says.

Common sense management

Since the Valley Stream Central High School District just outside New York City began revamping its discipline policies three years ago, fewer students have been suspended out of school, says Thomas Troisi, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Saturday detentions have proven to be an effective alternative to suspensions for less serious offenses, such as skipping class or using cell phones when they’re not allowed. The district’s psychologists and social workers also have been working more closely with students who are getting in trouble. And that extra effort has led to more students being referred to outside agencies for help with problems such as substance abuse, Troisi says.

“We have to effectively manage student behavior while at the same time be mindful that standards are increasing, graduation requirements are increasing, and if students are going to be losing days of school, we’re going to have a real problem with achievement,” Troisi says.

Zero tolerance policies fail because they don’t give educators enough flexibility, says Michael Novotny, superintendent of Salado ISD, a small, suburban district between Waco and Austin, Texas. “I don’t think zero tolerance is the most effective way to work with students,” Novotny says. “I believe we need to consistently enforce the rules or the code of conduct, but the way the consequences are applied needs to be individualized for the student based on several different circumstances.”

In Texas, administrators considering suspensions, expulsions or referrals to police must weigh a few factors:

  • Whether a student was acting in self defense or not;
  • The intent of the actions;
  • The student’s disciplinary history;
  • And whether the student has a disability that impairs his or her ability to understand his or her own behavior.

Novotny said he has twice dealt with students who brought firearms to campus, though both incidents occurred in other districts. In one case, a student showed a handgun in a threatening manner to another student in a parking lot. In the other, a student drove to school with a hunting rifle that he’d forgotten was in his truck.

“If you had zero tolerance, you would say both kids should be expelled for a year because both brought firearms,” Novotny says. “In reality, the intent was very different.”

The student in the first case was expelled for a year. The other student was placed on in-school suspension for a few days, he says. “The more options you have, the more flexibility you have in finding out what the most effective consequences will be,” he says. “The main objective of your discipline plan is to prevent recurrence of behaviors.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.