Rethinking Discipline
Four district leaders find culture shifts challenging yet key to reducing student suspensions
BY ALAN WECHSLER/School Administrator, September 2018

Superintendent Mary Sieu (second from right) with staff and graduates of the BRIDGES Program at Cabrillo Lane for high school students with severe behavioral issues, part of the ABC Unified Schools’ multi-tiered system of support.
It was 2012 and Mary Sieu had just become superintendent of ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, Calif. The district of 21,000 students had some of the highest-performing schools in the state and the country and had won awards for school improvement. Yet drilling down on student suspension rates revealed a disturbing picture.

“What dismayed us was that the discipline data did not reflect our diversity but concentrated primarily around two racial groups,” Sieu says of her highly diverse school system.

Like many districts, the ABC schools for years had operated a zero-tolerance policy toward misbehavior. Then, in 2012, a statewide mandate in California required districts examine discipline practices and find alternatives to suspending students. In 15 other states, legislative bills relating to school discipline were under consideration around that time as well. The objective in most cases was to reform the harsh disciplinary practices.

Although ABC’s suspension rate of 4.7 percent was low compared to 500 other California districts, Sieu and her team recognized that disparate discipline rates among racial and ethnic groups signaled the need to create support systems for students in trouble.

Mounting evidence across the state showed that students of color and other minorities faced suspensions from school at a much higher rate — nearly four times greater than white students in some California districts. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts asking them to address the “school-to-prison” pipeline that disproportionally hurt minority students. The push to find alternatives has been gaining momentum, although scattered acts of violence in schools that included student shootings are raising some concerns about the softening of disciplinary measures.

Positive Shift
Sieu introduced a program in 2012 known as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS. The federally supported program offers four tiers of response to deal with student discipline.

Under Tier 1, a teacher or staffer deals individually with the problem. In ABC, Sieu said 80 percent of discipline matters that arise are resolved this way. When an ABC high school student was caught stealing a sandwich in the cafeteria, he was asked why he committed this act. It turned out he hadn’t eaten since the previous day because his home had no food. Instead of being punished, the school helped him apply for the free lunch program, the superintendent said.

A student’s recurring problems lead to Tier 2 interventions. The student who repeatedly gets into fights is referred to a school social worker. In some cases, students who are regular combatants take part in a mediated discussion to resolve their differences. “It’s not just sending a kid home to watch TV or hang around the neighborhood,” Sieu says.

If problems persist, outside experts are brought in to help — Tier 3 intervention. The youths may be referred to a youth counseling center or they may be ordered to join a parent at a family guidance center. If students are caught possessing drugs, they might be remanded to a local drug treatment center. In many cases, the student is sent to a “bridge program” — a class in a different part of the school with access to fitting support.

The idea is to address the trauma underlying the misbehavior in the first place. The traumas include poverty, foster care, abusive situations, homelessness. “It’s about all the positive things we have to do to increase a student’s possibility to perform at his or her very best,” Sieu says.

In Tier 4, a student is transferred to a private school that specializes in dealing with his or her problematic behavior. ABC pays the student’s tuition. Only two dozen students have faced this level of response.

ABC’s four-tiered approach had its costs. The district hired at least 10 new mental health professionals, bringing the district’s total today to 34. But under PBIS, the district has reduced its suspensions from 4.7 percent of the student population to 1.7 percent. And, Sieu adds, “I have not expelled anybody in six years. We used to expel 10 to 12 students a year.”

Root Causes

Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., on the first day of school in 2017 when she rode a bus with students heading to Parkside Elementary School.

Around the time of the PBIS launch in ABC Unified, Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., was considering a similar program. When Superintendent Susan Enfield came to Highline in 2012, she admitted she was shocked at the number of students being suspended or expelled in a single year — about 2,100 students out of a district population of 19,000 back then.

“I felt this was a hemorrhaging of children out of our system,” she recalls.

Like ABC Unified, Highline is a melting pot with many low-income students. When Enfield investigated the high incidence of disciplinary cases, she found the main cause was defiance. “I can tell you right now defiance is not a threat,” she says.

During her first year, at a staff meeting, she raised the idea of trying to eliminate out-of-school suspension. Her wish was met with a polite silence — but the topic was broached. At one point, Enfield asked two students who had been suspended multiple times to talk about their experiences at a staff meeting. It turns out that the father of one student had recently abandoned the family, leaving it in chaos. The other student had a drug problem. Enfield questioned the students in front of the staff: “At any time when you were suspended, did any adults ask you why?” No one had.

“The message we send when we suspend someone for minor infractions is we are throwing them away,” she says. “In my mind, we punish the behavior without diagnosing the root cause.”

Her alternative: Teach faculty how to de-escalate a situation. If a student mouths off in class, teachers in Highline are directed to accompany the offender out into the hallway to discuss the situation one-on-one. “You always lose when you engage with students in the classroom,” Enfield said.

In 2013, the district put an engagement specialist in each of Highline’s 32 schools to develop an in-school alternative program for problem students. There, students could continue to do schoolwork, some with access to counseling as well.

The changes were not without issues. Some teachers contended they were not trained to handle unruly students. Some principals, in an effort to reduce numbers, continued to send students home but did not mark them down as suspensions. (Enfield says she put a stop to that.) Some individuals hired to be engagement specialists didn’t work out because principals were not well informed about the requisite skills to perform the job. A story in the Seattle Times in 2016 said student behavior problems were causing veteran teachers to leave the district. (Enfield disputed the story, saying teacher churn was on par with neighboring districts.)

“What I underestimated was the magnitude of the culture shift that this involved,” Enfield says. “It’s really, really hard. We are educating high-needs students to high standards.”

But suspension rates did go down — from 7.2 percent to 1.7 percent over the past five years.

Mulitpronged Measures
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Denver Public Schools was pushing for change. About 10 years ago, local leaders challenged the district to examine a racial disparity in the district — African-American students represented about 14 percent of the student body but about 30 percent of suspensions.

Eldridge Greer, associate chief of student equity and opportunity, says Denver began eliminating most suspensions and expulsions last year. In its place, the district promotes restorative justice practices, where student instigators are made to understand how their misbehavior causes trauma to others. “Discipline should be a learning experience, not a punishment,” he says.

Allison Horton (front), restorative practices coordinator at Skinner Middle School in Denver, with educators from across Colorado who are looking to build restorative cultures in their own schools.
He offered an example of how the process works. Two girls at a Denver high school regularly took to fighting each other. After each fight, the girls were brought into a room with a counselor so they could discuss what the fight was about, how their anger hurt each other and what they could do to prevent it from recurring. One day, after a few such meetings, the counselor saw the two girls walking toward him. They had just had a fight, she said, and they wanted to discuss it in private. “We don’t need you, we just need your office,” one said. “We know what we have to do.”

“It was at that point that he realized he had changed the culture,” Greer recalls.

Ten years ago, Denver had 200 expulsions in a body of 73,000 students. Last year, with 93,000 students, the district expelled just 31 students.

In Ohio’s Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the impetus for change came from tragedy. In 2007, a 14-year-old suspended student came to an alternative high school with a gun, wounding four before killing himself.

The school responded by spending about $3 million on metal detectors and security. Then the school began devoting attention to “humanware.”

“Our kids cannot be successful if they do not have the supports and the socio-emotional learning component they need,” says Michelle Pierre-Farid, chief academic officer in Cleveland. “We want to fix the problem. Suspension doesn’t fix the problem.”

The district of 38,000 students now employs various programs to help students who act out. Students with behavior problems are dispatched to a planning center — a place in the school where they can get extra attention apart from peers.

The district also introduced Not on Our Watch, an anti-bullying program, and Wave, a peer-mediation program where two students a year in each Cleveland school are trained to work with fellow students.

Safety Concerns
A backlash to suspension alternatives has arisen lately. Some teachers and parents say violence in schools is increasing as students face penalties that are too mild for their aberrant actions. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering rescinding the “Dear Colleague” letter distributed during the Obama administration.

Some critics of suspension alternatives make the connections between the relaxing of punishment and the fatal shooting of 17 people inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in mid-February. Stoneman is part of the Broward County Public Schools, which runs a program called PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education) to reduce student suspensions.

Leaders at districts that have worked to reduced student suspensions say they take safety in school no less seriously. Acts that threaten students can still result in suspension.

“Things happen. I’ve had kindergarteners clear a room with their violent behavior,” says Highline’s Enfield. “We have to be honest and strategic and compassionate, but also pragmatic.”

It’s the more banal misbehaviors that they seek to address through alternative means.

“We wanted our children to understand it’s OK to have emotions, it’s OK to not feel happy all the time,” says Pierre-Farid of Cleveland. “But you have to learn how to manage it.”

ALAN WECHSLER is a freelance education writer in Albany, N.Y.