Cutting the School to Prison Pipeline

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Sophomore Machi Lockhart and fellow CORE mediators from Hillsboro High School talk about their work during a parent and community meeting at Watson Grove Baptist Church.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — There is a quiet revolution going on in Metro schools regarding discipline. To keep kids from getting suspended Hillsboro High School is using conflict resolution and Fall-Hamilton Elementary is using stress reduction techniques.

“If there is not a safe trusting environment for kids to come to school in, they are not going to learn,” said Lorraine Stallworth from MNPS Student Services. She said a sense of community provides a safe learning space.

District Teachers, administrators, and students echoed that sentiment at a meeting around school discipline and racial disparities in MNPS November 16.

“We have to bring that sense of community back into our schools for that seven and one half hours when they are in school so they can hear what we are selling which is academics,” Stallworth said.

Every Metro school chooses a discipline model for their school. The idea is to give students the opportunity to fix what they have done wrong rather than just punish them. Stallworth also said schools need to get students the support they need so they can be available for learning.

Too many black kids aren’t. They act out in disproportionate numbers. According to Metro School data, students who were suspended for bad behavior missed 60 thousand days of instruction last year and most of them were black.

In 2016-17 382 students were sent to alternative learning centers (ALC) and 210 were expelled. Black students make up 40% of all students but 75% of those sent to ALCs or expelled.

In Metro high schools, black kids are sent to the office twice as often as white kids, given in-school suspensions more than twice as often, and suspended from school grounds more than three times as often as whites. Latinos do worse than whites and Asians are best-behaved.

ALCs have the highest rates of referrals and suspensions. Racially segregated schools, like White Creeks High School, have higher suspensions rates than other schools. Four of the district’s 31 charter schools have high suspension rates of black students, too. Disabled African American boys and girls are suspended at more than double the rate of any other race.

Kevin Foster taught in Metro schools for two years. He quit. “I prefer to think I am on sabbatical,” he said.

Foster said positive discipline can have a transcendent effect for teachers and students.  But without the right model and proper training, conversations between students and teachers won’t change bad behavior unless students are held accountable. When they aren’t teachers can’t teach and learning stops for everyone.

“Then you are back to square one and the power dynamic can get really ugly,” said Foster. Talk is cheap but effective intervention is worth a thousand words.

“I have seen the school to prison pipeline in action. It was very shocking to witness. I didn’t realize how real it was. A small number are the vast number of expulsions and suspensions. Most are African Americans and these are kids who are also often below level in reading and math,” he said.

Foster did what a lot of teachers do. He let kids who weren’t paying attention sit in the back of the class where they could be ignored. But that didn’t work.

“I can tell you that being excluded off in the classroom was not helping control,” he said. When he lost it, Foster sent his students to the office. Principals either suspended or expelled them. If an infraction was serious enough, the police were called. And that’s how kids go from Metro schools into the prison pipeline.

“I can tell you it’s very real,” Foster said.

“Why do we suspend?” asks Dr. Shuler Pelham, Hillsboro High School Principal.

“It’s cheap its fast, its expedient, it’s a tool we are allowed to use and it creates the false impression with many of our stakeholders that we are tough on discipline. That’s why we do it. We don’t do it because it’s effective. It doesn’t change behavior.”

Pelham said Hillsboro had ten first-time drug offenders this year. Normally they would be expelled for a year but those students entered a drug rehab program and were suspended but not expelled.

The district has written a new discipline policy and procedures into the Student Parent handbook. The goal is simple: keep kids in school. You can’t teach them if they aren’t there.

“Pelham mentioned drugs. What about mental health issues?” asked Dr. Tony Majors, the principal author of the new discipline procedures.

“Kids don’t leave those issues when they get up, load up on the bus in the morning. They show up at school with those same issues. We have to be willing to address those issues that are impacting them emotionally and physically, “ Majors said.

About 80 percent of students follow the rules, another 10-15 percent need occasional reinforcement, and 5 percent simply can’t function or behave like other children. They need help outside school and too often don’t get it.

When a student is disruptive a good teacher tries to redirect their attention. If that doesn’t work, the teacher gives a warning. If that doesn’t work, the misbehaving student at Hillsboro High School often gets referred to a student mediator who is trained in conflict resolution.

Positive discipline works by treating others with respect, listening, using more effective language, and being clear about expectations and procedures. Intervention uses these positive behaviors to model good behavior and change bad behavior.

During an intervention, students are encouraged to explain their behavior with “I” statements like “I am angry because….” and avoid justifications like “He did this so then I did that…” When a student explains what is going on inside to a counselor or to a peer, change can happen.

Training is necessary to do effective interventions and most Metro teachers haven’t been trained yet. At Hillsboro High School a group of students do interventions during their study hall period. Culture of Restorative Environment (CORE) is a group of students who offer intervention for students and teachers to create better relationships in the school.

“I feel like there are more conversations happening. We are moving forward,” said Machi Lockhart, a Hillsboro sophomore.

“Because it’s not a group of teachers, it’s a group of students, I can relate to them, and I can better myself and they can better themselves,” he said.

Fall-Hamilton Elementary is in its third year of a pilot program that uses similar techniques that soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder learn to help them cope.

Elementary students practice stress reduction and self-regulation techniques with teachers at Fall-Hamilton twice a day. Teachers let kids take positive proactive breaks during the school day. It really works.

“From the baseline year (2015-16) we reduced total office referrals by 87 percent,” said Dr. Mary Crnobori, who started the program that now runs in ten Metro schools.

She said minor referrals dropped 92 percent and out of school suspensions dropped 40 percent. So far this year, there has been a 96 percent reduction in disciplinary referrals, 100 percent reduction of in-school suspensions, and 80 percent reduction of out of school suspensions.

Skeptics tell Crnobori that her program looks impressive but hasn’t eliminated bad behaviors.

“Even if behaviors have not gone away, the way we are responding to them as a school is completely different. We are supporting kids’ needs rather than punishing them,” she said.

Fall-Hamilton’s Achievement Network (ANet) scores rose 12 percent in the first year of Crnobori’s program. Grades 4-6 are outperforming the network average this year by 7 percent in English and by 9 percent in Math.

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