Schools innovate around behavior as suspensions fall into disfavor

Elizabeth Behrman
| Sunday, March 13, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Saying the “F-word” during class used to mean an automatic out-of-school suspension for students in Woodland Hills.

Not anymore.

“It's 2016,” said Superintendent Alan Johnson. “That shouldn't get you suspended.”

Cursing will get the student removed from the classroom, he said, but school staff take more time to consider the circumstances before making a decision about whether it's worth kicking that student out of school.

Education advocates have been taking a hard look at suspension numbers after national data showed that schools were suspending students at alarming rates. After being named among 10 school districts in the nation with the highest number of suspensions for elementary school students, Woodland Hills has joined others across the country that are attempting to reduce their out-of-school suspension numbers. Districts are increasing mental health services, expanding alternative education programs, updating their student conduct policies and exploring the effects of “restorative practices,” which focus on building relationships with students in an effort to come up with a resolution other than being removed from school.

Reform efforts

“Awareness was the first thing,” Johnson said. “Nobody had really even paid attention to it. They just suspended kids.”

State data show that the number of out-of-school suspensions in Allegheny County school districts has dropped from more than 25,000 in 2008-09 to 3,700 during the 2014-15 school year. Suspensions in Westmoreland County districts dropped from about 900 to 430 during the same time period.

“We know that there's a strong (correlation) between suspension and a whole range of social problems, starting with not completing school,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Students who are suspended — particularly those who are suspended more than once — are more likely to fall behind academically, be disengaged or drop out of school.

A 2013 study he conducted on behalf of the ACLU listed the Sto-Rox, Woodland Hills, Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Aliquippa and Penn Hills school districts among the top 10 in the state with the highest suspension rates. It found that black students in Pennsylvania were five times more likely than white students to be suspended.

In 2011-12, a black male student in Woodland Hills was about seven times more likely to be suspended than a white male student in Woodland Hills, Johnson said.

Besides updating the code of conduct — which was approved by the Woodland Hills School Board in 2014 — the district has provided more training for teachers so they have a better understanding of what some of their poorer students experience every day. The district provided more psychiatric evaluations for students with chronic behavioral issues and expanded the Rankin Intermediate School, which serves at-risk students, to include students down through third grade.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is in the midst of a two-year study, funded by a $3 million federal grant, that is exploring the effects of “restorative practices” on classroom behavior. The RAND Corporation is leading the study in 22 Pittsburgh schools and will gauge how the changes affect suspensions, attendance rates and other factors.

“There are more strategies for students and staff to talk through things before they get escalated,” assistant superintendent Dara Ware Allen said.

RAND is expected to provide the district with a report of the first year's results this summer, but so far, Allen said fewer students appear to be transferred to alternative education programs. Suspensions overall in the district have dropped by about 40 percent since 2011, but the discrepancy between suspensions of black and white students hasn't changed, she said.

“We see this strategy as a reform effort,” she said.

Johnson said he doesn't want the changes to be interpreted as “soft.” Students who deserve to be removed from school still are; the district is trying to be more considerate of the underlying causes of their bad behavior.

“The community wants the schools to be safe, but society is also demanding we stop suspending students in certain groups more than others,” Johnson said.

Changing the culture

A program that began in the Penn Hills School District last school year has helped cut back on the district's number of students suspended repeatedly, although it hasn't affected the overall number of suspensions and expulsions, Superintendent Nancy Hines said.

Hines and school staff members began the program as an alternative to out-of-school suspension. Small groups of eligible students chose to spend their Saturday mornings with school staff and volunteers discussing topics including peer pressure, self esteem and drugs and alcohol. The program this year was taken over by Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. It is dubbed Manhood 2.0, a voluntary program for young men that addresses topics such as sexual violence, healthy relationships and fatherhood.

The discipline problems Hines sees in her district are usually related to fighting or physical aggression, not drugs or weapons, she said.

“We're really trying to change the culture where we are addressing the root causes, not just put the Band-Aid on and get the kid out of here to detention or suspension or whatever,” Hines said.

Districts like those in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are leading the state in their work to reduce suspensions and discriminatory discipline practices, Jordan said. Other districts are resistant to the change.

The data on suspension rates and their effects on student performance has only recently been made available, and educators are trying to figure out what it means and how to address the issue, he said, so he bears them “no ill will.”

“I think that the work that's been done to rethink the use of out-of-school suspensions has been impressive,” Jordan said. “It's been important. But it's a work in progress.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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