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Solutions, Not Punishment, Focus of School Discipline Policies

As school districts across the country work to address racial inequities in discipline, some campuses are trying alternative approaches to keeping students out of trouble and in the classroom.

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As school districts across the country work to address racial inequities in discipline, some campuses are trying alternative approaches to keeping students out of trouble and in the classroom.

Among the approaches gaining in popularity: positive behavior support programs, which reward students for good behavior, and restorative justice programs, in which students are brought into the process of identifying solutions, rather than simply punished.

In Chicago, the number of suspensions given in a school year declined after the district made changes to its student code of conduct in 2012, and began using less exclusionary discipline practices. However, “we still have very large disparities by race and gender,” said Elaine Allensworth, of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Allensworth shared the findings of a recent study the consortium conducted on school discipline in Chicago Public Schools during a panel discussion at the Education Writers Association’s recent National Seminar held in the Windy City.

Tips for Coverage

The panelists shared a few ideas for fellow reporters on how they got access to schools and students to cover discipline issues:

  • If facing pushback from the school district’s communications department, negotiate. Try to get the principal on board first.
  • If suspensions have gone down, let them know you want to see firsthand what’s being done to lead to the decline.
  • Work with a juvenile diversion program or nonprofit organization to find students who have acted out in the past and are now working to better themselves and are willing to talk about it.

Black male students are still suspended at much higher rates than their white peers, Allensworth said. One-third of the black boys enrolled in city schools were suspended in the 2013-14 school year.

Allensworth said predominantly black schools serving students in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods are the ones driving the disparities.

The code of conduct changes included clearly identifying which offenses warrant a suspension and which do not, as well as shortening the amount of time students serve in out-of-school suspension, Allensworth said.

It is hard to tell whether schools are suspending students less because there are fewer behavior problems or because disciplinary practices have improved, she said, but added that students and teachers surveyed said school climate improved after suspension numbers went down.

Reporters’ Perspectives

Panelist Sarah Karp, deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago at the time of the EWA seminar (she’s since moved on), covered discipline issues in Chicago Public Schools. It is important for reporters covering school discipline to see for themselves what’s happening on the ground and to take improving numbers with a grain of salt, she said.

“As journalists, we shouldn’t say ‘the numbers have gone down, the problem’s solved,’ ” Karp said. “One time, I spent a week going to in-school suspension rooms. Those were like hell on earth. They literally had bookcases in front of doors because kids were trying to get out. I never attended one where there was any curriculum around changing behavior.”

Panelist Francisco Vara-Orta, an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, spent six months last year examining school discipline in a Texas middle school as it piloted a restorative justice program.

When a conflict arises, students can request a “circle,” with classmates, teachers and school administrators to resolve the problem with a face-to-face discussion.

In 2012-13, the first year the school used restorative justice practices, in-school suspensions declined by 30 percent and out-of-school suspensions dropped 84 percent, Vara-Orta reported.

“It’s a very time-intensive commitment,” he said. “Some teachers did not like this process. When they got their degrees, zero-tolerance was the law of the land. The teachers there that have really bought into it say, ‘I’d rather invest the time now than have someone in the criminal justice system have to do it later.’ ”

Panelist Claudia Rowe, an education reporter for the Seattle Times, said the response from teachers when schools in her school district began using restorative justice hasn’t been so positive.

That school district has been investigated by the federal government for discipline disparities.

“What I hear from teachers often is they’re in this impossible bind of being lashed ever harder for getting kids ready for tests and discouraged from suspending students who disrupt the classroom environment,” she said.

Rowe examined the restorative justice program at a small, alternative high school outside of Seattle, which saw a significant drop in suspensions.

“It really demands a significant and profound shift on the part of the educators,” she said. “They have to be willing to look at how they’ve done the classroom management in front of the students.”