Thankfully for children and parents in Peoria’s inner city, charter schools won out over boot camp alternative schools in last night’s election.
Discipline Gets the Boot
While zero-tolerance policies come into question, urban districts are trying alternatives—and seeing considerable success. 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.”
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.
North Lawndale Prep's Commitment to Peace
Every school day, 430 high school students travel from all over Chicago to the city's rough West Side and to North Lawndale College Prep charter high school, where they enter without passing through metal detectors.
"That's something that the founders were adamant about," says Nicole Howard, the principal of this 12-year-old charter school, which requires student uniforms. "They thought it was the wrong way to start the school day, with adults going through students' pockets and backpacks."
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 Veltzé, 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 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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