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Suspended futures: finding better school discipline methods

Some schools reconsider suspension as a corrective measure

Published: Monday, March 18 2013 12:15 a.m. MDT

Suspension increases a young person's probability of both dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system, the Civil Rights Project report said. The statement is corroborated by a 2003 Rockefeller Center report, which found that criminalizing trivial offenses at school pushes children out of the school system and into the criminal justice system.

Too soft?

Striking the right balance between draconian discipline measures and excessive leniency is tricky, though. A 2012 decision to soften New York City public schools' disciplinary code — in part, because punishments fell more heavily on underprivileged youth — has made it more difficult for teachers to manage their classrooms effectively, some critics say.

"The more other student(s) see that there is not consequence to bad behavior, the more others join in, creating a snowballing situation," said Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York. "It's important to have a model of authority early on. These are kids that are coming from homes that are unstable, and often chaotic. A very regimented and clear set of norms is very important."

MacDonald says that the interest of students who are eager to learn should be paramount.

"The teacher should set clear rules, make the consequences very transparent, and expect the students to live by them. If they don't, at some point it may be necessary to remove a student from a classroom," MacDonald said. "Schools are being asked to socialize kids who are not getting socialized at home, but there's a limit to what they can do. If a student continues to be disruptive, he just can't be allowed to interfere with the other kids' ability to learn."

It's a dilemma that leaves educators looking for ways to head off discipline problems early, before such severe measures as suspension or expulsion become necessary.

Positive intervention

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is a time-honored discipline philosophy used in schools around the nation to decrease problem behavior and establish positive school cultures. It helps educators know how to deal with bad behavior in their schools and instead encourage good social skills and behaviors.

Under this model, when kids break rules there are clear consequences, as well as an emphasis on prevention, which could include group or individual counseling to help students before they get into deep trouble.

Bob Stevens, PBIS coordinator for South Carolina's Charleston County School District, said the system works well in all of the schools in his district, which serves the wealthy neighborhoods of the Kiawah Island resort area, and the poverty-stricken students of the nearby sea islands, an economically depressed area.

Haut Gap Middle School, on Johns Island, serves a high population of poor students. It was at risk for closure in 2008 because of poor academic performance. Stevens credits positive disciplinary and academic interventions for turning the school around.

Clear expectations and heading off problems before they escalated replaced suspension as the go-to disciplinary measure. As suspensions dropped, the percentage of students getting good grades increased, defying expectations about the need to get problem students out of the system, Stevens said. The school went from being at risk for closure to winning top ratings on the South Carolina 2012 school report card.

"Haut Gap is a very different place than it was five years ago," Stevens said. "Students are engaged, and they are learning. … In a community that has a lot of problems, Haut Gap — because of PBIS — is the consistent bright spot in students' lives."

Alternatives that work

For Guerrero, now 20, the traditional school system didn't work, but an alternative program met her needs, sparing her from joining the ranks of high school dropouts with limited futures.

There were plenty of forces pushing her in that direction, though. Her Spanish-speaking mother worked constantly to support three children — Guerrero's father deserted the family soon after her birth. An older sister who dropped out of school to help pay the bills soon became involved with gangs, and that was the natural expectation for Guerrero, too.

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