Discipline, By Any Other Name…

The news that the Trump administration is making moves to reverse Obama-era school discipline policy guidelines, aimed at addressing disproportions in the number of black and brown students, in underserved communities, comes as no surprise.  Regardless of one’s politics, it is not a radical statement to agree with that a key agenda cog of Trump’s first two years in office has been to overturn any policy he, and many members of his party, perceive to be overreaching, and infringing on individual and organizational rights.  That the justification for the overhaul of these policies manifests as a response to school shootings, surprises many, and indeed, the very nature of the Obama-era policies, was targeted at making urban schools more equitable in service to people of color, while strengthening their safety culture, while the ongoing spate of shootings, is almost entirely relegated to school districts in suburbs.  Nevertheless, from the perspective of this educator, who has worked for several years as the primary School Culture leader (read: ” too oftentimes Dean of Discipline”) the ideology behind the shift-return in policies may not be as misguided as its detractors would have us believe.  Here is what I mean, in a few different points…

1.Urban schools are NOT getting safer as a result of the Obama-era policies, per the teachers who work there.  To be clear, schools as a whole ARE getting safer, despite the recent tragedies, but the trend hasn’t had a noticeable impact on urban school safety, by way of quantitative data.  The qualitative data, meanwhile, is disconcerting: urban schools, from Philadelphia, to Syracuse, and Chicago, teachers unions have brought forward concerns* about school safety, noting that the recent shifts in disciplinary policy, designed to decrease suspension rates, are doing that, but just that, as numbers of incidents reported have stayed steady, and increased in many districts.  Indeed, it has been my experience that more schools are misguided in their implementation of alternative-to-suspension policies, whether they be grounded in Restorative Justice practices; in-house suspension practices; or even reverse suspension policies, though I firmly believe that proper implementation of any or all of these can be highly effective discipline-disruptive practices.  Schools often do incorporate these strategies to effective ends, but it takes buy-in from school stakeholders; highly functioning systems of referral and intervention and training, training, training.  All staff need to be trained on how they work, why they work, and what each staff member’s role will be. Students need to be trained on how to respond and participate. And, perhaps, most importantly school leaders need to be trained on how to efficiently and effectively, (over)communicate steps being taken, and the why behind these steps.

As an example, an international school I know  of, located in New York City, recently had a case of “vandalism” where a student of Palestinian descent removed a Israeli flag because his own flag was not represented.  Outside consultants recommended using a restorative approach to the matter, having the student hold a circle with staff and other students to hear his perspective, as well as to gain perspective on how others might have perceived his actions as offensive.  Fine idea!  But the school had no current restorative practices in place; and to bring an outside arbitrator in to lead these discussions would have been problematic in myriad ways: staff and students were not trained on how to hold these conversations delicately, directly, and constructively; any restorative practice that is not generated organically from the school itself may miss the mark due to absence of context knowledge, familiarity with the parties involved, etc.; and, to manage this instance with a restorative approach begs the question, will future similar instances be handled the same way, and if so, is the school equipped to manage that?

If urban schools are not seeing gains in academic progress, and a decrease in incidents to match the decrease in suspension, even with a wealth of alternative approaches at their disposal, why isn’t this data changing?  The simple answer is, its easy to manipulate the disciplinary data: suspend less for low-level infringements than you were previously; fail to report out-of-school time as a suspension; ask teachers to do more to contain small incidents without confrontation, which might escalate (sometimes with the appropriate training to do so, but more often not.)  All of these are trends I have personally witnessed in schools.  But the harder answer is this: with top-down policies, schools react instead of reform.  They rush into policies to produce results, because resources are spare (for this purpose let’s count all of these as resources: time, money, personnel, skill-set.)  A more effective, approach, outlined below, would be for schools to develop, organically, and with input from all stakeholders (staff, students, family, community partners) a disciplinary policy that reflects the communities beliefs, then dedicate the time and resources to develop systems and practices that accommodate the agreed-upon results.

2. Urban teachers unions aren’t exactly clamoring for a return to “the way things were” prior to the Obama-era recommendations (many of their constituents completely agree the old way was unfair, in its results) but they are making clear that they don’t see the shifts are making them and their students safer.  And this stance is supported by a number of teachers, including a large sampling of those I know.  The results of their dubiousness can have a tremendous negative corollary to school safety and student outcomes.  Unhappy–and, perhaps, scared, teachers simply don’t teach as well.  So let’s presume a school does make the very reasonable decision to continue to take measures to decrease out-of-school discipline practices, while decreasing overall incidents, and making their school safer, as were the Obama-era policies intent.  What can they do to make this happen?  Quite simply put: be more supportive of their staff, and not just in words, but in actions.  Define systems and best practices, and dedicate hours of professional development to helping teachers and staff understand these, practice these, and modify them to their classrooms or workspace.  Do NOT hire a Restorative Practices Dean, or Socio-Emotional-Learning Specialist or other school culture leader with the intention of that person being your student-whisperer.  Hire that person, with the intention of them being the trainer of staff to all participate in this work.  From first person experience, I can tell you, the latter approach will alienate staff from leadership, and just plain burn out your hire, no matter how talented.  Do NOT jump into one practice or another, until you’ve vetted all possibilities with staff, students, and families.  Do be willing to incorporate a number of strategies into something that is unique and appropriate for YOUR SCHOOL’S needs.

3. Misguided, or not, in their fundamental beliefs about public education, the premise of the Trump administration’s reversal on these policies is, essentially, that such policies remove the power from school leaders (and by extension, their constituent staff, students, and families) and place a blanket approach, woven by policy-makers with little experience in the schools themselves.  The logic is, if those working in schools feel their schools becoming increasingly unsafe, shouldn’t they have the power to do something about it?  The logic behind the Obama administration’s policies is, its problematic to let schools run on self-sufficiency with their discipline policies, because the data shows that they have historically administered these policies in ways that are patently unfair and unjust to students of color.  Urban schools, after all, serving majority black and brown students, suspend at much greater rates, and the numbers, nationwide, are skewed against students of color.  Neither of these strands of logic is wrong; and in my experience, they are both more right than they are wrong.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.  Schools can, and should, have more direct responsibility over their disciplinary guidelines, and should be held accountable to their practices: but to whom should they be held accountable?  The reasonable answer, again, points not to a bureaucracy, handing down guidelines, but to the respective schools’ stakeholders.  If I am a parent in Boston, I am certainly concerned about equity of disciplinary practices across districts, but I am primarily concerned that my student, his teachers, and I, feel that the disciplinary or intervention practices being leveled are in line with OUR needs.  I trust that school leaders always want to make the decisions that are in the best interest of all students.  Even when I have seen schools where I vehemently disagreed with a practice or policy, it is EXTRAORDINARILY rare, I believe that the intentions were rooted in bad faith.  So as a school leader, I would look at the Obama-era recommendations, AND the proposals to reverse them, and I would lead a very earnest conversation with my stakeholders: where do our values align along this spectrum? What do we believe in?  What can we say we are HONESTLY doing (and not just talking about doing) to disrupt historically inequitable disciplinary practices? What students do we serve, and are we placing the highest possible priority on their civil rights, and academic needs?  Each school NEEDS to start the discussion there.

4.  Both policies miss the forest for the trees.  Disciplinary action is only required and just when a clear, consistent, and fair culture has been breached.  If we are going to invest in policy guidelines, we should be investing in policy guidelines that address the proactive work schools should be doing to build these clear, consistent, and fair cultures, which by nature will imminently decrease incidents, and continue to do so, so long as the school culture remains strong.  To wit: most disciplinary incidents resulting in suspension, stem from instances of subordination (a broad and subjective term) and not from violent incidents.  This is true across districts, and economic lines, but it is particularly true in urban schools, and with students of color.  What this means, is often the incident begins with a teacher perceiving  students behavior to be disruptive, undesirable, or maybe just unproductive, such as sleeping in class.  The teacher addresses it, the student doesn’t respond in the way the teacher would like, and so a power-struggle ensues until the person vested with authority (staff member) determines the subordinate (student) has crossed a line.  Why do teachers do this? Not because they want to, or are incompetent, or are jerks, but far more often because they are human, and they work demanding and taxing jobs, particularly in under-resourced schools, where trauma is often high, and they aren’t trained to respond to trauma in an informed way, or they were thinly trained and don’t feel confident in their skill-set.  And then, stuff happens. There are practical ways to change this narrative: professional development time dedicated to trauma-informed teaching and classroom culture; wholistic support for teacher self-care; a more present leadership team, observing, coaching, providing feedback; restorative intervention before stuff blows up; schedules that allow for teachers to reflect in professional learning communities and learn from one another…The list goes on.

In summary, if you are a parent, student, teacher, or school leader, and you are invested in understanding your school’s disciplinary policies, as they exist now, and perhaps advocating to change them, here is what you can do.

  • Understand your schools current approach to culture, incidents, and discipline.  Research alternative-to-discipline practices like Restorative Justice, in-school suspension (my least favorite of these); reverse suspension; student courts, etc.
    • Teachers – if you believe strongly in one of these, start by practicing a version of it in your classroom.  Let your leadership team know you’re creating a learning lab on this strategy, and invite them to observe it.
    • Students, parents – Read the handbook! Schools have a responsibility to you to provide it, you have a responsibility to yourselves to read it, and ask questions! Don’t get caught unaware.
    • Leaders – You cannot drive culture alone, develop a strategy with your teacher leadership team to assess your current practices, and revise them as you see fit!  Begin by getting input from as many stakeholders as possible, and don’t be afraid to, over time, blow the whole system up entirely, in favor of something more aligned to the community values.  Bring in a Parent Advisory Committee, Student Government representatives, community partners.  Don’t fear it.  Just do it!
  • Advocate for school leaders to spend less time ramming “Student Achievement First and Foremost!” ideology, at detriment to staff satisfaction and retention; and help leaders to see that staff culture drives student culture.  Leaders, be open to hearing that.  There are two approaches to positive student outcomes: an approach that justifies the end, whatever the costs; and an approach that enlists and develops teachers to stick around for the long hall, and willingly do the hard work for you.  If you don’t accept the abundance of research that directly ties teacher retention to academic achievement, then maybe this article on how its impacting your bottom line will persuade you!  Imagine what you could do with that 20k you’ll be saving on each experienced teacher who returns, each year!
  • I repeat: school culture ONLY improves as a result of community effort.  It cannot be a top-down measure.  “Culture,” one of my former colleagues often said, “IS.”  It is there and it is created through the actions of all. And once it establishes itself, its a mighty hard ship to course-correct.  So, whether you are a student, parent, teacher or leader, prioritize collaboration on this.  Because ultimately, no matter how great a school’s curriculum, in a culture of tumult, the lessons aren’t getting through!
  • Training, training, training.  Restorative Practices training, Trauma-informed teaching training; de-escalation strategies training; culturally relevant curriculum training; training teachers to more effectively communicate with students and parents, and training students to more effectively communicate with each other and their teachers.  Training leaders to be more resonant leaders!

If you implement the recommendations above, you have The Paper City Project guarantee you will see remarkable results in both your quantitative and qualitative culture data- and by extension your academic performance data.  And by The Paper City Project Guarantee, I mean, if you don’t see those results, I will personally come see that you make the adjustments needed to assure you do!

Readers, what are your thoughts on school disciplinary policies and the proposed reversal of Obama-era policies?  What would your ideal school culture LOOK and feel like?  Is the school you attend now, or were the schools you attended when you were younger fair?

*Please note the title of this NY Post article, and its premise reflect only the opinions of original author, and are not my own; though I do find the narratives from teachers to be informative on the matter.


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