students and school discipline
Spotlight: School training
School personnel learn new approaches to discipline
School personnel from around Connecticut now have access to a training that confronts stark disparities in how kids of different races and ethnicities are disciplined in school. This long look at a serious injustice is founded, however, on optimism. “Educators want to do a good job,” said Glenda Armstrong, who has worked in public schools for more than 30 years and is a member of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (JJAC). “They want to be able to impact and motivate all students regardless of their race or ethnicity.” The training is designed to show them how.
The JJAC modeled Effective School Staff Interactions with Students and Police on the training it had already been offering patrol officers. (See Helping police see the world through a kid’s eyes.) Tailored for school safety and support personnel, teachers and administrators, the training seeks to reduce the inappropriate use of school-based arrests and other disciplines such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, particularly for minority students. It is offered free to school personnel around the state.
Participants are introduced to some disturbing data about how discipline is meted out in Connecticut schools, including rates of disciplinary incidents broken out by race for every district in the state. Statewide, black students are more than five times more likely than white students to have their behavior identified by school officials as a disciplinary incident. Hispanic students are more than three times more likely than white students to have written incidents in school.
“We’re not saying that any district or individual is mistreating minority students,” said Sergeant Andre Parker, of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Police, one of the co-facilitators. But regardless of intention, disparate outcomes are clear. Parker hastened to present data gathered by the Connecticut Department of Public Health that showed adolescent behavior is quite similar across race and ethnicity. In other words: The problem does not lie in student behavior, but in how adults respond to it.
The consequences of those differences can be significant. The overall four-year graduation rate in Connecticut for whites is 91 percent. For blacks, it is 77 percent; and it is only 70 percent for Hispanics. Students who have experienced exclusionary discipline are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to enter the juvenile justice system.
“Racism is a very personal issue, and it’s very difficult to bring yourself to address it in a real way and a concrete way,” said Armstrong. She believes that the training’s tactic of using data to demonstrate disparity without placing blame for it allows school personnel to grow in awareness and potentially review their own decision making with an eye toward greater fairness.
The training confronts thorny issues faced in public schools. At a recent session, one school security officer recalled how a boy came up to him before school and asked the officer to hold a knife for him during the school day. The officer, of course, was confronted with a student who had brought a weapon on to school grounds. The boy said he had no intention of using the knife in school, but he needed protection on the walk to and from school through a dangerous neighborhood. “A mile and a half in Hartford is a big deal,” the officer said.
Educators talked about students’ safety concerns, difficulty engaging parents and a generational shift that makes youth more likely to question direction from an adult. Norms of behavior at home and in the community may not be what educators would want, explained co-facilitator Mindi Scala-Sanders, who teaches at Hamden Middle School. But school personnel can create norms within their schools. Consistently making students aware of expectations is essential to encouraging good behavior. “If we can give kids that consistency, we may have a fighting chance,” she says.
Attendees came hungry for practical advice on managing student behavior. “I’m here to gain more information about how we can actually deal with students who maybe have behavioral issues,” said Hope Howard, a dropout prevention specialist from New Haven Public Schools. Howard said that many of the students who first present with behavioral problems have learning disabilities that make their academic work frustrating. She’s found that individualized help to address their educational needs improves student behavior. “No child is exactly like another child,” she says.
One of the tools the training uses is a video called “The Hat” that shows a teacher encountering a group of students. One boy is wearing a hat and is more tuned into his ear buds than to the teacher’s order that he remove his headgear. Teacher and student alike grow angrier with each other and the boy eventually swears at her. An alternate version shows the same teacher, this time smiling and engaging the same group in conversation before she requests that the boy remove his hat. She gives him a choice — a technique that is often effective with adolescents. He can take off the hat or come to the office. When the hat comes off, she thanks him for “being so mature about it.”
This is part of a review of adolescent development that forms an important part of the training. Understanding some basics about what is going on in the teen brain suggests some strategies for managing behavior without conflict. Kids share their own reactions to challenging encounters with adults. “I hate when people yell, because then I feel like I have to yell back,” one high school student says in a video shown to the group.
Armstrong stressed the importance of maintaining a good relationship with a student, even after a serious misbehavior. “It’s an episode in a child’s life. It’s not their whole life,” she said.
Schools are evaluated by how well students do on standardized tests, notes Armstrong, not on students’ social and emotional development. Finding time and inclination, therefore, to address topics like adolescent development and classroom management requires creativity.
“There just isn’t access to the proper training,” said Joseph Torres, a security officer at Eastern Connecticut State University’s ACT Magnet High School.
A team from West Haven Public Schools interested in improving school climate attended the training. Assistant Pupil Service Director James Turcio sees a growing interest in behavioral expertise among school staff, he said. His district has two such experts who work with and support teachers. Administrators are also spending more time in classrooms to promote better interactions between educators and students.
Another goal of the training is to give school personnel some insight into the workings of the juvenile justice system to combat the idea that a referral to the system might be in the child’s best interest. A single contact with the juvenile justice system is associated with ongoing involvement and with poor academic outcomes.
Arming school personnel with better discipline techniques can discourage the inappropriate use of arrest. “Educators sometimes think, ‘I’ve tried all my magic and nothing is working with this kid. This is beyond me,’” said Armstrong. “It’s not beyond you. It is you.”
Many of those at the training said that they were already motivated to take a hard look at discipline in their schools. Torres, the school security officer from the East Conn magnet school, said that a love of kids drew him to his job in the first place. “If you don’t have a desire to help kids and see them flourish, then it really isn’t the job for you,” he said.