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Discipline Gets the Boot

While zero-tolerance policies come into question, urban districts are trying alternatives—and seeing considerable success.
Students at John F. Kennedy High School in Denver walk through the hallways in between classes. Since the district changed its policy, students are taking more responsibility and respecting others.

For the past 15 years, zero-tolerance policies for violence in schools have been the driving force behind many—80 to 95 percent by some estimates—of school discipline policies around the country.

Starting in 1994 with the requirements of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act and propelled by the shootings at Columbine High School five years later, districts began implementing zero-tolerance policies not just on possessing weapons but on a variety of student behaviors—from bringing in drugs and alcohol to cursing, disrupting class or even violating the dress code. Along the way, student suspensions and expulsions multiplied, not to mention the number of referrals to principals’ offices across the nation.

But the disciplinary landscape is starting to change in a growing number of schools, especially those in urban districts, where administrators have taken their cues from high-profile reports questioning the effectiveness and fairness of zero-tolerance practices. “Up until three years ago, the trend in most large urban districts was going in a more punitive direction,” says Jim Freeman, the project director of the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project in Washington, D.C.

Freeman, who has worked with districts in Denver, Chicago, Baltimore County and Florida to change discipline codes, points to a landmark study in 2006 by the American Psychological Association that helped turn the tide. “While the standard claim was that zero-tolerance policies would improve school safety, the schools were no safer than before zero tolerance,” he explains. “What the report showed was that zero-tolerance policies turned schools into inhospitable environments that didn’t promote school safety. Now the movement towards alternatives is really picking up in a significant way. There are more bills being introduced and passed, and more districts are rewriting their policies.”

Texas enacted the latest legislation last spring, requiring school authorities to consider mitigating circumstances in applying zero-tolerance policies. And nationwide, more parents and elected officials want schools to revisit policies, in part due to a recent high-profile case involving a 6-year-old Delaware boy who was suspended after he brought to school a camping tool that included a knife.

In large cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and New York, meanwhile, school districts have been replacing those policies with the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) program, an approach to student behavior that emerged in the 1980s and pays careful attention to the social and emotional circumstances that can lead to bad student behavior, as well as interventions to prevent it, and with Restorative Justice (RJ), a more recent approach to discipline that offers a more flexible and creative way of dealing with behavioral incidents. Both methods emphasize that the offenders understand the impact of their actions and make appropriate amends.

Author and educator Ross Greene, who believes zero-tolerance policies are ineffective, also created the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach, which has helped schools to respond to behaviorally challenging students more effectively, and which has dramatically reduced rates of detention, suspension and expulsion. In his guidelines Bill of Rights for Kids with Social, Emotional and Behavioral Challenges, Greene, an associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, strives to ensure students with challenges are understood and treated compassionately.

The End of Zero Tolerance

Denver Public Schools officially changed its discipline policy in August 2008, after years of discussions with school and community stakeholders, including the police department and district attorney’s office. “We had extremely high numbers of school suspensions compared to the other districts in the state,” recalls Cheryl Karstaedt, executive director of the district’s Division of Student Services. “And those suspensions were being disproportionately meted out to minorities. That really was the impetus for us to look at doing something different.”

The new discipline policy embraced PBS and RJ practices, which had already been used for several years at seven pilot schools. Each school has its own RJ coordinator, who mediates conflicts between students or between a student and teacher; works with students, parents, teachers and administrators to devise alternative punishments to suspension; and monitors the aftermath of behavioral incidents.

“Restorative Justice creates an environment in which students take more responsibility,” observes Nicole Veltz?, principal of Skinner Middle School, one of seven with an RJ coordinator. “Today when I reinstated one student, I said, ‘Did you think when you cussed out your teacher the effect it would have on the teacher?’ We walk them through the [feelings of] other people it affects.”

A police officer visits Cienega Elementary School in Los Angeles to support students participating in a "Race to Read" program, which requires students to read five books within the first quarter and write a book report.

The teacher met with the student and the RJ coordinator to mediate how to restore the classroom environment, and the student wrote a speech to the class about how his poor choice affected that environment, she says.

Personnel from 70 other schools around Denver have since received PBS and RJ training. “The policy really emphasizes trying to prevent certain behaviors before they occur, analyzing behavior antecedents and focusing on age-appropriate discipline techniques to keep students in school,” says Karstaedt. The number of out-of-school suspensions, which spiked in 2002-2003 at 14,000, decreased to about 8,000 last year.

The Teacher’s Role

Such disciplinary transformation has depended in large part on augmenting the role of classroom teachers as first responders to disciplinary situations. The teachers’ role is illustrated in the new policy through a six-level “discipline pyramid” that involves teachers with students, parents, school nurses and guidance counselors in dealing with student behavior. “There’s an emphasis on doing things at the bottom of the pyramid that wasn’t there before,” says Karstaedt.

“We look at it from the perspective that classroom management is the responsibility of the teachers,” says Jeannie Peppel, the principal of JFK High School in Denver. “It’s taken a few years for them to realize that they could control their classrooms, and we’ve given those who were making a lot of referrals ways to better handle discipline.”

Also at Cienega, pupils in the African American History club learn about their history. Both events give students positive adult attention.

JFK’s assistant principal, Doug Jackfert, who helped develop the new district policy, says he asked teachers why they were sending students out of the classroom to the principal’s office for infractions ranging from disrespectful behavior toward the teacher and verbal altercations with other students to excessive tardiness and minor damage to school property. He worked with them to deal with the kids in class. “We also did a lot of professional development on setting expectations about appropriate behaviors with students from the beginning of the year,” he says.

Those teachers now stress respect for students, each other and school property, and they deal with conflicts in ways that don’t escalate the problem, Jackfert explains. “If a kid comes into class and starts something with another student, right away the teacher will get them to stop arguing and send us a heads-up in the office,” he says. “We’ll ask what was going on and if that behavior has been going on for a long time. We work together to head off a physical fight.”

The number of referrals to the principal has dropped from 1,659 in 2007-2008 to 1,252 in 2008-2009, Jackfert notes, and out-of-school suspensions dropped from 326 to 174 in the same period.

The new approach has resonated with Principal Veltz?. Now in her fourth year at the middle school, she recalls school life before the coordinator arrived two and a half years ago. “Restorative Justice has great payoff for detrimental behaviors like horseplay and fighting,” Veltz? says, explaining that having students make amends for their behavior gives teachers and administrators more options. “In the old days, every fight meant a suspension.” While RJ may be labor intensive, Karstaedt and other advocates of alternative discipline point out that school personnel from teachers to deans to principals already spend considerable time in the discipline process and that their time could be better spent on PBS and RJ.

Karstaedt also emphasizes that the district has not gone soft. “This doesn’t mean that we won’t use suspensions or referrals (to the justice system),” she explains. “But that’s reserved for serious offenses that endanger students and school personnel or disrupt the school environment.”

Such offenses punishable by suspension or referred to the courts include—according to the new policy—arson, destruction of school property (including graffiti) totaling more than $5,000, hazing, possession of explosive devices other than firecrackers, as well as violating state laws against assault, drug sales and weapons possession.

Alternatives to Suspension

The Los Angeles Unified School District—staggering under almost 84,000 days of student suspensions in 2006- 2007—had already begun serious work almost three years earlier on revising the student discipline policy, which officially changed at the end of 2007. “We have kids who have lost weeks of instructional time because of suspensions. We really want them to be in school and learning,” says Nancy Franklin, LAUSD’s director of professional development.

Thanks to a three-year, annual $1 million budget, Franklin and her staff adopted the PBS system three years ago and implemented CHAMPS, a classroom management program for teachers that gets them to change their teaching approach by stressing—according to the letters in the acronym—community, help, activity, material and participation.

Teachers tackled the CHAMPS curriculum over a year of professional development workshops. “They already had the skill set,” Franklin points out. “So we got them to ask, ‘What’s my piece? What’s my responsibility?’ And they realized, ‘I really can change everything in the classroom by changing the structure.’”

As part of that change, Franklin explains, teachers learned to collect data on the level of student engagement for certain teaching approaches, even soliciting student feedback, and then adjusted their teaching styles and classroom activities to reflect what they had discovered.

Students hoping to be peer mediators at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., gather at a training session as part of an extensive conflict resolution program.

“The new discipline policy has really added years to my life,” proclaims Kandice McLurkin, principal of Cienega Elementary School in central L.A. Under that policy, which also includes RJ and a published list of 10 alternatives to suspension (see sidebar), McLurkin has seen office referrals in the 800-student school drop from 335 to 271 in the last two years. “We were the hub for three different youth gangs, but when we put in the Positive Behavior Support plan, we grew an average of 55 points on the California Standardized Test that first year,” McLurkin says. While gangs still exist in the surrounding neighborhood, their influence within school walls has diminished.

“I’ve seen kids making better academic progress because they have better in-seat behavior,” Franklin adds.

McLurkin also points to the district’s 10 alternatives to suspension, which range from restitution and community service to behavior monitoring and mini-courses such as ballroom dancing. Cienega has made extensive use of the mini-course options, which are taught after school by volunteers. One example is a seminar staffed by the Los Angeles Police Department and aimed at helping students develop respect for authority.

McLurkin recalls one girl two years ago who had been involved with gangs, been in trouble at school, and ended up in the police mini-course. “On Back to School Night last year, she saluted a police captain,” McLurkin notes, adding that the student now says the Pledge of Allegiance to open school assemblies and works in the school library during free periods.

Changes and Controversy

The discipline policy for New York City’s public schools has changed more gradually over the past three years, as the district has merged long-standing approaches to discipline with alternative interventions and punishments. “Suspension is a Band-Aid approach,” says Elayna Konstan, CEO of the Office of School and Youth Development. “We look at discipline and student support services going hand in hand.”

As with other districts that have modified their disciplinary approaches, New York has asked teachers to upgrade their involvement with students. “The goal here is that a child has to be held accountable for a harmful behavior but make that a teachable moment and provide supports so it doesn’t become a repeat offense,” says Connie Cuttle, the office’s director of professional development.

The district so far has made good on that claim, reporting that the number of second-time offenders dropped by almost 15 percent between 2006-2007 and 2007- 2008. James Madison High School in Brooklyn has come farther ahead of the curve over the past eight years since the arrival of Principal Joseph Gogliormella. He developed an extensive conflict resolution program for students, including using 100 student peer counselors and 40 specially trained teachers and staff members.

“Recidivism has dropped dramatically here,” Gogliormella points out, noting that the number of repeat offenders has declined from 37 three years ago to just seven over each of the past two years. Still, a report this summer by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and the New York Civil Liberties Union charged that the district had been guilty of overpolicing by increasing the number of police officers in schools from 3,200 to 5,200 over the past decade. The study, entitled Safety with Dignity, focused on six schools across the city that in recent years have taken the unorthodox step of eliminating metal detectors at their entrances and cutting back on the number of city police on their premises.

The researchers found that this group of schools graduated 62 percent of their students in four years (compared to the 55 percent rate of “metal detector” schools) and had a 12 percent dropout rate, five points lower than the rate in schools with metal detectors. The report also opposed what it termed “de facto zero tolerance” and suspension policies at the latter schools, arguing that “children who are removed from the learning environment for even a few days are more likely to drop out, use drugs... and become involved with the juvenile justice system.”

Despite the positive outcomes of eliminating zero-tolerance policies in favor of restorative justice, some school security experts favor separating out repeat offenders permanently. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., endorses the growing number of alternative schools set up specifically for students with recurrent disciplinary problems, even at the elementary level.

Stephens also questions if such behaviors should be the teachers’ job. “Teachers trying to increase the educational achievement of their students can’t do it effectively if they’re spending 25 to 30 percent of their time on discipline,” he says. “It goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy: Until you get safety, you can’t move on to higher goals.”

Freeman of the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project admits that many people still believe that the “get tough” approach is best, and districts must drive out bad kids. “But we need to have tolerance rather than zero tolerance and see what schools can do to create contributing adults,” he adds. “What it takes is helping schools recognize that what keeps schools safe is effective prevention and intervention.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.