Dr. Donna Whitney, co-chair of the Education Task Force for Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH)  

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN – At a time of nationwide protests against unequal policing of black and brown bodies, the Metro Nashville Public School board is considering a more stringent disciplinary code for public school children proposed by Dr. Adrienne Battle, director, MNPS.

   “Dr. Battle has proposed changes that are regressive – that increase the number of offenses for which a student can be suspended, that increases the length for which a student can be suspended from five to a potential of 10 days,” said Donna Whitney of NOAH, an advocacy group for racial justice. Further, the proposed code introduces vague language that makes interpretation subjective. “And we know that wherever subjectivity is encouraged, that increases the disparity. . . black boys are suspended the most, then black girls, then brown boys, then brown girls, and then white kids,” said Donna Whitney. Whitney is co-leader with Racquel Davis the education task force for NOAH.

   Advocacy groups NOAH and Positive And Safe Schools Advocating Greater Equity (PASSAGE) are speaking out against it as strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline. NOAH is a community organization of churches, mosques, nonprofits and labor unions with a focus on pursuit of racial justice.

   “Our criminal justice task force was aware of the school-to-prison pipeline and focused on discipline practices within Metro Nashville public schools that appeared to be leading to this pipeline,” said Whitney.

   In the past, Whitney says NOAH had worked with the board of education to sucessfully change some aspects of the MNPS student-parent handbook because Nashville schools, “had attracted national attention for the degree of racial disparity in school discipline.” NOAH worked with PASSAGE, to ensure that elementary school kids K-4 would no longer experience out-of-school suspension.

   “That was a big improvement – along with several years of steady improvement from 2013 to present,” said Whitney. “There was a trend nationwide and in Nashville to focus away from punitive discipline and more toward restorative practices. That means focusing more on social and emotion learning so the kids could cope with distresses that were producing disruptive behavior instead of being sent away to somehow magically get better while not being taught anything.”

   What is restorative disciplinary practice? The focus is to help students understand feelings that lead to their behavior. It helps them do the work of restoring the harm that they’ve done. “It is a way to hold students directly accountable to the person and make amends for the harm that they’ve caused. It’s definitely not a matter of letting kids off the hook,” said Whitney.

   When asked why the school board would reverse course in favor of a more punitive discipline code, Whitney is pragmatic and disappointed. The short answer is funding. “It is an approach that requires adult leadership and adult participation and that includes salaried positions. And that’s where some of the difficulty arises. While I think most of the school board and certainly Dr. Battle have felt all along that this [restorative discipline] is the best way to educate children, there hasn’t always been the funding there to make it possible.”

   Some schools like Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School have gotten outside funding to hire professionals to do restorative discipline. Three Nashville schools have implemented programs successfully. According to a WPLN news story Warner Arts Magnet Elementary School, implemented a program called “Be Well In School” where Riki Rattner used breathing techniques to help children identify feelings in their bodies, do deep breathing and become aware of the stress and frustration they are feeling in a way that helps calm them so they can think about their problems instead of acting out. According to the report, this program reduced disciplinary referrals by 75%.
Introducing such restorative practices not only makes suspension unnecessary but also “improves reading scores two to three fold and arithmetic scores two to three fold,” Whitney said.

   “We don’t stop teaching math because they’ve learned to add and subtract — [students] go to the next level and learn algebra. It’s the same with behavior – they learn to share and then they learn to make amends and they learn how to communicate about it. It’s part of education.”

   The school board will consider the stricter disciplinary practices in its June 9th School Board Meeting.