Transforming School Discipline: Lessons from Baltimore

By Kelly Munn, LEV State Field Director

The Seattle team in tours a school in Baltimore.Representatives from League of Education Voters and community-based organizations recently traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, to learn more about the discipline reforms that have been implemented by Baltimore City Public Schools with great success. Upon their return, each member contributed to our blog series, “Transforming School Discipline: Lessons from Baltimore.” The post below introduces the series, which will run through mid-December. Read More

Transforming school discipline key to better education

This post was written by League of Education Voters CEO Chris Korsmo and originally published in The Seattle Times on September 25, 2013.

Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education VotersIf we are serious about closing our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps, we need to find ways to keep kids in school and learning, writes guest columnist Chris Korsmo.

STUDENTS can’t learn if they’re not in school.

If we are serious about closing our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps, we need to find ways to keep kids in school and learning.

While Washington state made progress in the last legislative session, there is more to be done.

Nationally, school-discipline rates are at an all-time high, double what they were in the 1970s. Millions of students are suspended from school every year. And students in groups with persistent achievement gaps are suspended and expelled from school at higher rates than their peers.

The school house, the place we all hope can serve as the “great equalizer,” is closing its doors to an alarming number of the very students who need the most support.

In Washington state, we have historically had no maximum length for suspensions. Expulsions could last indefinitely. Students, many of whom were arguably the most at risk of failure, were being left out of school indefinitely with no educational services and no plans for how to transition back into school.

A 2012 Washington Appleseed and TeamChild report requested discipline data from all 295 districts in Washington. Only 183 districts could provide detailed information about the number of long-term suspensions (defined as 10 or more days in Washington), emergency expulsions and regular expulsions. Even fewer districts could provide race and ethnicity or free and reduced-price lunch-status information of the impacted students.

Data from the 183 districts that did provide information showed that only 7 percent of students reportedly received educational services while they were out of school.

The League of Education Voters, TeamChild and Washington Appleseed were part of a strong effort to address the discipline crisis in our state during the most recent legislative session.

Washington legislators took a first step by passing a bill requiring emergency expulsions to end or be converted to another form of discipline within 10 school days. The bill also mandated that suspensions and expulsions last no longer than one calendar year, though a school may petition to exceed that limit based on public health or safety.

The new rules require schools to make detailed discipline data to be publicly available on the state’s education website. School districts are also required to create a re-engagement plan for suspended and expelled students

These are meaningful and significant improvements that will positively impact the lives of many, many children. And there is much more work to be done.

As a state, we must continue to minimize the amount of time students are out of school and maximize the opportunities for learning. District leaders must consider shortening the length of suspensions and expulsions and limiting their use. Instead, use in-school suspension and detention.

Each school district must decide what program works for its students, but many successful examples focus on keeping students in school and providing training and support for teachers covering topics such as cultural competency, social and emotional development and classroom management.

A program that is gaining attention is Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, or PBIS. Highline Public Schools is implementing this program in every school in the district.

A number of school districts across the country have addressed discipline problems with practices that educate and teach, rather than punishments that remove the student from class.

Baltimore’s discipline policies emphasize prevention and intervention strategies and discourage the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and arrests for most student misbehavior. In four years, suspensions dropped from 1 in 5 students being out-of-school suspended to 1 in 8. The dropout rate fell nearly 4 percent.

Let’s aim to outperform Baltimore in reducing dropouts.

We Need Common Sense Discipline

andaiye-qaasimThis blog post was written by LEV Organizer Andaiye Qaasim

Every year, tens of thousands of students across Washington state are suspended and expelled. We can only speculate how these numbers translate into loss of classroom time, failed courses, and decreased graduation rates. Let alone the damage done to a student’s psyche, self-esteem or confidence. Thankfully, this situation is about to change.

Yesterday, the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee reviewed four different bills on discipline. This long awaited movement in the Washington state legislature is the result of the unceasing advocacy from various community groups, parents, non-profit organizations, and policy makers. The list of supporters for this cause included the Kent Black Action Commission, WA Appleseed, TeamChild, the Maxine Mimms Academy, and the League of Education Voters just to name a few.

As a community organizer I have heard several community members express their frustration with the way discipline is carried out in schools. When we analyze disproportionality in school discipline we begin to realize that it’s not just about ineffective policies, bogged down bureaucrats, and “unintentional” consequences. Many of us ask about equity, cultural competence, inclusion, student dignity, and the constitutional right to an education. These conversations are forcing people in Washington state to finally explore the pernicious inequity in our schools.

As we delve deeper into this issue we also begin to explore some key questions such as “How is it possible for education to level the playing field, when the field in education has yet to be level?” “How can we possibly argue that public education is accessible to all, but still engage in discriminatory practices?” “What does equity in education really mean?”

It was evident in the spirit, hearts and stories all who testified yesterday that transforming school discipline and reclaiming Washington state students is going to take more than well thought out policies. The policy will provide the infrastructure, but the people must provide the implementation. An equitable implementation of school discipline will require a cultural shift—one that is intentional and uncompromising.

We are hopefully beginning to see this cultural shift in the way we go about the practice of public education and create a system that does not continually exclude students, but one that unconditionally accepts and incorporates all students into a learning community. I sincerely hope that we are finally able to have these conversations without being afraid of the words ‘racism,’ ‘inequity,’ ‘low-income,’ and ‘cultural competence.’

Yesterday was a monumental day for Washington state, and we will all hold our breath while the Senate decides the fate of the four discipline bills that were heard. We thank our legislators for the taking up this issue. We hope that they may be filled with the same righteous indignation of Martin Luther King, this week and the next, as they deliberate over their decision, and thus over the lives of tens of thousands of children in Washington. We look forward to change and band together in solidarity with communities across Washington state, ready to take up the fight.

Join us in the movement.

Walla Walla school’s new approach to discipline drops suspension 85 percent

Yesterday we wrote about a study that concluded that “safety in schools can be enhanced by increasing both structure and support: adopting rules that are strictly and fairly enforced and having adults at the school who are caring, supportive and willing to help students.”

In Washington, one school is adopting this positive approach with astounding results. Lincoln High School in Walla Walla is an alternative school with students who face some of the most difficult life challenges and had experienced trouble in their previous schools. The principal, Jim Sporleder, was looking for solutions after three challenging years running the school. He found them in a new approach to discipline that encourages communication, keeps kids in school, and shows respect and support for every student, no matter how they act out.

Sporleder came to this new approach when he was introduced to research that shows that students dealing with trauma are physiologically impaired when it comes to learning. The types of trauma include emotional, sexual and physical abuse, and emotional and physical neglect, a parent addicted to alcohol or other drugs, seeing a mother being abused, a family member in prison, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and a parent who’s disappeared through abandoning the family or divorce. An anonymous survey created and answered by Lincoln High students found that the students had an average of between four and five of these traumatic experiences in their lives.

The staff at the school takes this information seriously. They know that you can’t simply punish a behavior that is a reaction to trauma away, so they take a different approach. When a kid erupts in class, teachers intervene quickly. They step out of the classroom with the student and ask what’s going on, suggest the student take a time out in a special In School Suspension (ISS) room, or ask the student if they would like to speak to someone at the adjoining Health Center.

If it escalates, the student meets with Principal Sporleder, who uses a zone system to help students describe their behavior. Students in the red zone get time to process their emotions and then meet with Sporleder the next morning to discuss solutions. Now that the program has become part of the school’s culture, more often than not the students have already talked the problem over with their teacher, apologized and figured out a solution by the time they meet with Sporleder again. If they refuse to apologize to the teacher and solve the problem, or their infraction is more serious, students instead go to In School Suspension, where they can catch up on work, talk to an adviser and have time to move to the green zone.

Using this method, staff say there are much fewer emotional explosions and students are better able to self-regulate. Plus, their suspensions have dropped 85 percent and expulsions have dropped by 40 percent in just one year.

“This is such a paradigm shift, you have to believe in it to make change happen,” said Sporleder. “The administration has to show support. That’s what I’ve seen. You’ve just gotta believe in it. You’ve gotta know that it’s true.”

Read more about Lincoln High School here.