Education

Schools use alternatives to suspension, see student behavior improve

Eziafa Okocha, left, 13, finishes up lunch with his dad, Austin Okocha, left, at Harriet Eddy Middle School in Elk Grove. Every month, the school invites parents to share lunch with their children as part of a program to reduce suspensions.
Eziafa Okocha, left, 13, finishes up lunch with his dad, Austin Okocha, left, at Harriet Eddy Middle School in Elk Grove. Every month, the school invites parents to share lunch with their children as part of a program to reduce suspensions. rbyer@sacbee.com

Moms with pizza boxes and dads with McDonald’s bags filed into the quad at Harriet Eddy Middle School last week to eat lunch with their kids.

Parent Lunch Day, held monthly at the Elk Grove school, is one innovative method that educators are using to improve the climate on campus and, as a result, reduce suspensions and expulsions.

Sacramento-area schools had a sizable drop in suspensions and expulsions in 2013-14, according to new data from the California Department of Education. About 21,600 students in K-12 public schools in Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado and Placer counties were suspended last year, down from 28,000 two years prior. Roughly 270 students were expelled last school year, 180 fewer than two years ago.

The decline reflects an ideological shift as school districts have asked administrators and teachers to reserve the harshest penalties for only the most severe behavioral problems. Districts say the data also show that preventive measures, such as regularly using positive reinforcement on campus, have proved effective.

Schools are turning to more holistic approaches to keep students on the right path, such as meditation and peer courts in which students decide on consequences for bad behavior. They are also relying more on Saturday school or after-school detention than keeping students out of class.

“A lot of studies and data show you can’t suspend your way to success,” said Doug Huscher, a Sacramento City Unified School District interim assistant superintendent who focuses on improving academic performance among minority students. He said schools across the country are moving away from suspensions.

Minority students – particularly black males – historically have had higher rates of suspensions. The region’s black students were suspended last year at a rate almost four times higher than white students, state figures show, and Hispanic students were suspended at a rate 30 percent higher than white students.

Specific behavioral interventions have focused on minority boys, said Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross. The district started a Young Men’s Leadership Program to build strong leaders and a positive school culture, he said.

Students at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, especially those who would have been suspended for disrupting school activities or willful defiance, are now more likely to face progressive discipline – a visit to the counselor, detention, Saturday school or a campus visit from their parents.

“We are keeping them on campus so they can do their work,” said Principal Chad Sweitzer. “When they are home, they aren’t getting any work done, especially if they are unsupervised.”

The most popular alternative discipline program locally is Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. Its premise is simple: Develop clear expectations for the students. Teach and reinforce the rules consistently. Offer rewards for good behavior. Counsel or discipline students exhibiting bad behavior.

Bringing parents onto campus goes a long way toward improving school culture, one of the most important ways to ensure good behavior on campus, said Mark Benson, principal of Harriet Eddy. He does this with the monthly parent lunches and breakfast meetings.

“Families understand what the PBIS program is and how it positively impacts the students and campus climate,” Benson said. “They provide support when we need to reinforce any expectation. It really completes that circle of communication with student, school and family. The student knows that, like I tell them, ‘There is no escape.’ ”

On Wednesday, Sherry Singh and her eighth-grade daughter Jaz shared lunch from Chipotle Mexican Grill. The mother said it’s good for kids to “hang out with their parents” at school because parent involvement makes a big difference.

Nearby, the school’s PBIS mantra was spelled out on a sign: “Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible.”

Harriet Eddy students are made aware of the rules when they enter school. Expectations are repeated and explained during advocacy classes throughout the year. Students learn the appropriate behaviors to exhibit in front of the school, at the bike rack, in the quad and in the classroom, Benson said.

“Our campus is a very safe place for students,” Jaz Singh said. “It’s a friendly place where you still learn.”

Middle schoolers doing such things as opening doors for others, following teacher instructions and otherwise being safe, responsible and respectful may earn a raffle ticket for a weekly drawing. Staff members who hand out tickets said students can earn vouchers good for Starbucks, McDonald’s or In-N-Out.

PBIS teams at each school use data to look for trends. “If the data show that a large number of eighth-graders have been warned about being disrespectful, the teachers in that grade level will ramp up discussions about respect,” Benson said.

The state has taken a greater interest in reducing suspensions and expulsions; it now requires each campus and district to explain annually how it plans to reduce the use of such discipline and improve school climate.

Students are still disciplined for bad behavior, said Brian Patterson, one of four positive behavior coaches with Elk Grove Unified. “We are just saying that discipline is often insufficient. You have to discipline, but there are also opportunities to teach.”

In the past, a student who walked out of class without permission may have been suspended, Benson said. Now, the school’s PBIS team, which includes an intervention teacher, would look for underlying issues and offer counseling to the student.

“It provides an avenue for triage instead of going just to consequence,” he said.

Austin Okocha agrees that students should be punished in other ways than suspension. He protested via email when his son Eziafa, 13, was suspended earlier this school year for “socializing” too much. “Suspensions take away an opportunity for kids to learn,” he said.

Wednesday, he shared lunch with his son and his son’s friends. Okocha said he has been spending more time on campus since his son was suspended. “When I’m actively involved he behaves better,” Okocha said.

At New San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, students are likely to be called before their peers to mediate a dispute or determine punishment in a program called Restorative Justice.

Megan Shepard was a sophomore at New San Juan when she was suspended for fighting with another girl. The fight was instigated by a group of students that had been bullying her, she said.

Shepard and the other girl were sent to a Restorative Justice circle to work out their differences at the San Juan Unified School District campus. “It calmed it down and showed us we needed to not get so angry and that each one had a side,” she said.

She was referred another time after a conflict with one of her best friends. “We ended up both crying and being friends again,” she said. “There are so many occasions when you see the beauty of what sitting down and talking to a person can do.”

Shepard, 17, now a senior, is active in the Restorative Justice program and sits on the Peer Judicial Panel.

Students are sent to the Peer Judicial Panel for infractions like a dress code violation, using a cellphone in class or riding a skateboard on campus. The three-member panel talks to the student to find out what happened and determine consequences if appropriate. Punishments can include writing an essay, making a poster, apologizing to someone or performing community service.

If students do not comply, they are referred to the school office, where punishments are more severe, she said.

Shepard said the programs have improved student behavior at New San Juan and have helped students gain respect from their teachers.

Harriet Eddy’s suspension rate has dropped from 21 percent in 2011-12, when the school started its PBIS program, to 13.8 percent last school year, according to state data. Benson said he expects to cut suspensions in half by the end of this school year.

The program has helped the school to increase its Academic Performance Index score, the principal said. The school saw a 38-point increase between 2011-12 and the 2012-13 school year.

The numbers are also reflected across California. Statewide, the number of students suspended fell by about 87,000, or almost 25 percent, from 2011-12 to 2013-14.

“As you see the incidents decline you see safer campuses,” Huscher said. “You see campuses where children feel they can take risks with their learning. You see great bonds and connections between students and adults. You see teaching and learning is more impactful. That is what we are looking for in the things that we do.”

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

Students suspended

The decline in the number of suspensions in the region’s four largest school districts:

District

2011-12

2013-14

Decline

San Juan

5,323

3,996

-25%

Sacramento City

3,271

2,645

-19%

Elk Grove

5,182

3,499

-32%

Twin Rivers

3,517

3,077

-13%

Source: California Department of Education

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