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New direction for school detention

Old model of discipline gives way to coaching, conflict resolution, rewards and reflection By
Structured detention: A Flathead High School student, who is on the student newspaper, works during Structured Study. It’s part of a program whereby teachers oversee and communicate individually and in small groups with students to help them succeed in core academic classes.
Structured detention: A Flathead High School student, who is on the student newspaper, works during Structured Study. It’s part of a program whereby teachers oversee and communicate individually and in small groups with students to help them succeed in core academic classes.

While detention remains a staple of student discipline across the country, many school leaders are looking at ways to modify the practice, or even replace it, with approaches that may be more effective in actually reducing bad behavior.

Classic detention, where bored students sit silently and unproductively in classrooms after school, has limited value as a disciplinary tool, says Alan Johnson, superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District near Pittsburgh.

“Detention quite literally becomes something that we can do to demonstrate that a code of conduct is being enforced,” Johnson says. “As for effectiveness, few principals have any expectation of that.”

African-American and special education students face disproportionate rates of exclusionary punishment, such as detention, according to a 2012 study, “Breaking School Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.”

It followed all Texas seventh-graders in 2001, 2012 and 2013, revealing that students in detention were much more likely to be held back, drop out and be involved in a crime. It also found that use of detention varied widely, even among schools with similar demographics, and that detention did not improve academic performance.

School leaders are finding that changing how detention works may improve outcomes—as will broader, proactive disciplinary approaches that can reveal strained relationships with teachers or may identify underlying problems with students’ emotional health, academic skills and home life.

Students reflect, teachers coach

Administrators may feel they have few remedies other than detention or in-school suspension for serious infractions—such as a fight—involving student safety. And detention (or the threat of it) can change the behavior of some students for the better—as long as it is paired with an adult’s care and attention.

For instance, at Flathead High School in the Kalispell Public School District in Montana, some teachers serve as “personal academic trainers” during detention. They gather students for small study hall sessions or mentor each student separately on subjects that they need help with, says Peter Fusaro, Flathead High principal and president of the Montana Association of Secondary School Principals.

And at West Port High School in Marion County Public Schools in Florida, students who are disciplined must reflect on their actions by writing about what prompted their behavior, its consequences and how it could have been avoided, Principal Jayne Ellspermann says.

“When students make poor choices, the most important thing we can do is help them not make the same choice in the future,” says Ellspermann, also president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.“If time out of the classroom or after school is paired with reflection, it can make a difference.”

At Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, students who have misbehaved or need help with classwork are required to visit that teacher’s classroom during lunch period for coaching and tutoring.

This is a big deterrent for most students because they miss out on social time with friends at lunch. Richard Curwin, author of the book Discipline with Dignity, believes detention should be assigned only if a teacher is available to help the student one-on-one with class work.

Rewarding good behavior

Alternatives to detention generally involve a different philosophy about improper behavior and the students who exhibit it. But new approaches are sometimes difficult to implement. “They may require a lot in terms of budgets, staffing and time as opposed to simply writing a pass that says ‘be here at 3 o’clock,’” says Bryan Joffe, project director for education and youth development at the American Superintendents Association.

But for districts willing to invest the resources, the new approaches show promise. Some of these new models are based on relationship building and social-emotional learning. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, also known as PBIS, is an increasingly popular approach that emphasizes curbing bad behavior by rewarding good behavior.

When students misbehave at PBIS schools, the staff strives to keep the problem from escalating or interrupting instruction. Then they work to discover why the student was disruptive. Finally, they set behavior goals for the student, develop progress reports teachers can use, offer counseling or develop other specific guidance, and evaluate results, according to The Center on Response to Intervention at the American Institutes of Research.

Another approach is to focus on good behavior. Several schools in the Rapides Parish School District in Louisiana have developed “economies” in which fake money is given to students who follow rules or help others. The students’ earnings can “buy” extra treats at lunch or admission to special activities.

And Lowery Elementary School in the Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana reduced behavior issues by nearly 30 percent in one year using an application called Kickboard, which collects key data about behavior. The program allows teachers to report and track good behavior so top performers can be acknowledged on a “leader board” display or during morning announcements.

The system also reports which students have misbehaved so teachers can intervene earlier to solve problems. The data identifies which or groups that are repeatedly causing trouble and can then be used to develop personalized behavior plans.

Restorative justice

Another approach that has shown promise—restorative justice—brings teachers and students together to discuss specific incidents of bad behavior, analyze the consequences and find solutions.

For instance, in earlier grades a student might explain to classmates how bullying causes anxiety in the victims. In middle or high school, an entire class may talk about how instruction was disrupted by a student’s disrespectful behavior toward a teacher. In either case, victims describe how the event made them feel and the accused has an opportunity to reply.

After it was implemented two years ago in Racine USD in Wisconsin, fewer behavior incidents were reported, says Deputy Superintendent Eric Gallien.

Racine schools have also seen improved behavior after implementing programs—including Violence Free Zones (VFZ)—that in part teach students social-emotional skills. VFZ staff members intervene when students get into a fight, for example, and then talk about ways such students could have better handled their emotions. Suspensions have plummeted under the program.

At Pottstown High School in Pennsylvania, fighting incidents were cut in half and assignments to detention dropped from 168 to 37 over a two-year period, says Stephen Rodriguez, who was principal of the school when the program was implemented. “In a school actively using restorative practices, there is a reduction of all types of discipline issues,” he says.

In Portland Public District in Oregon, 95 percent of cases handled through restorative justice ended in an agreement between both sides and annual suspensions fell by more than 100 in a year.

In the Lansing School District in Michigan, the program resolved nearly all of the 522 cases presented over four years, avoiding 1,600 days of suspension.

Outside counseling

With some school counselors responsible for up to 1,000 students, some districts have sought assistance from outside agencies.

For example, Minneapolis Public Schools developed a program called School Based Mental Health in seven schools. Therapists from outside agencies assessed nearly 150 students for mental health problems and arranged for therapy from outside counseling services. And staff members were offered educational programs on such topics as attention deficit and adolescent brain development.

However it’s done, finding constructive alternatives to traditional detention for troubled students is imperative for all school leaders, says Curwin, the author.

“Every educator must decide how much energy to invest in chronically disruptive students,” Curwin says. “However, we know that those we don’t reach are at a much higher risk of committing crimes or otherwise being drains on society. So although they take more time and creativity, reaching and influencing them is immensely important.” 

James Paterson is a freelance writer in Delaware.