‘Disturbing school’ law faces challenge

“Disturbing a school” or acting “in an obnoxious manner” is a crime in South Carolina, but the law is unconstitutionally vague, charges the ACLU. Thousands of students — disproportionately African-American — have faced charges, says the civil rights group.

Niya Kenny didn't return to high school after her arrest for "disturbing a school."

After her arrest for “disturbing a school,” Niya Kenny dropped out and earned her GED.

The ACLU is challenging the law on behalf of Niya Kenny, who was arrested last fall after a school police officer violently removed a classmate who’d refused the teacher’s order to put away her phone.

Kenny stood up and cursed the officer, but didn’t interfere with the arrest, she told the New York Times.

Kenny was calling attention to police abuse, according to the ACLU’s account:

Fields picked the girl up, flipped her in her desk, and then grabbed an arm and a leg to throw her across the room. Niya stood up and called out, she recalled later. “Isn’t anyone going to help her?” she asked. “Ya’ll cannot do this!”

Niya was arrested, handcuffed, charged as an adult, and taken to jail.

Afraid to return to school, Kenny dropped out, missing her senior year, and earned a GED. She’s set to appear in court on “disturbing” charges in September.

The ACLU is also challenging another law, which makes it a crime for students to conduct themselves in a “disorderly or boisterous” fashion.

Let’s concede that teachers need to enforce order in the classroom. Does it make sense to criminalize disruptive,  “obnoxious” and “boisterous” behavior? How many of us would have escaped a criminal record if we’d been held liable in court for being obnoxious?

Increasingly, school police officers are equipped with Tasers.

Suspension: Is there a better way?

Credit: Seth Tobocman

The case against suspensions is unproven, argues Max Eden, a senior fellow of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, who’s guest-blogging for Rick Hess.

The attack on suspensions, writes Eden, rests on three assertions: “Disparate impact of school suspensions is evidence that they are racially motivated; (2) Suspensions do significant harm to students; (3) “Restorative justice” is a viable and more humane alternative, so we can reduce suspensions safely.

Blacks are suspended far more than Latinos, whites or Asians.

 The University of Pennsylvania’s Shaun Harper conducted a major study of suspensions in southern states that showed some disparities far too striking to be explicable without racial bias. Another study showed that white teachers tend to view black student behavior more negatively than black teachers.

But policy changes that assume “racial bias is solely responsible for the disparity” may go too far, breeding “rampant disorder,” writes Eden.

He also questions the “oft-heard claim is that school suspensions place students in the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.”

You would rather expect long-term differences between a troublemaker and a well-behaved student of a similar background; you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that the suspension caused the differences.

The most dubious claim, writes Eden, is that there are safe alternatives to suspension.

While there “are case studies of schools that have successfully adopted a ‘restorative justice’ model,  “much of the reliable evidence on the effects of rapid, large-scale school discipline reform in major urban districts is pretty grim,” he writes.

In Chicago, where a thorough study of the effects of shortening suspension length found a significant worsening of student-reported peer-relations, and teacher-reported crime and disorder. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has also undertaken a major suspension-reduction initiative. In de Blasio’s first year, according to the NY State Education Department, the number of violent incidents in schools increased from 12,978 to 15,934, the steepest increase on record.

In St. Paul, Superintendent Valeria Silva ordered “racial equity” reforms to narrow the discipline gap. Rising disorder is one of the issues that led to her firing (with a $787,500 exit package).

In an incisive postmortem, the Center for the American Experiment’s Katherine Kersten quotes St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders saying that fights that “might have been between two individuals … [now become] melees involving 40 or 50 people.” Kersten also relates the story of a teacher who, after being crushed into a shelf by a student, asks her students to use a secret knock before she’ll open the door to her classroom.

Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, demanded, “Do students and staff deserve to come to work every day and not expect to be assaulted?”

Better teaching closes racial discipline gap

Better teaching can improve student behavior and close the racial discipline gap, suggests a new study published in School Psychology Review.  Virginia middle and high school teachers who received coaching in improving instruction referred fewer students for discipline: Blacks were no more likely to be referred than other students.

The “teacher coaching did not explicitly focus on equity or implicit bias, or draw teachers’ attention to their interactions with black students,”  reports Madeline Will in Education Week Teacher. “It was focused on skills in effectively interacting with any student.”

disciplinary referrals.png

When teachers have high expectations and facilitate “higher level thinking skills, problem solving, and metacognition,” students are more engaged and better behaved, researchers concluded.

“The findings held when accounting for risk factors including students’ achievement levels, gender, economic status, and teacher characteristics like race and experience,” writes Will.

Teachers in the control group, who received no mentoring or feedback, referred black students for discipline more than twice as much as whites.

After the two-year program ended, the teachers who’d received coaching continued to show no evidence of a racial discipline gap.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t analyze the achievement gap, but it’s a good guess that more engaged, better-behaved students also learn more.

Charter schools don’t suspend more kids

Charter schools don’t suspend more students than nearby district schools, according to Nat Malkus, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow writing on RealClearEducation.

“Charters have come under increasing fire in the media for their alleged disproportionately harsh discipline practices,” he writes. “A widely cited report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA finding that charter schools have higher suspension rates than traditional public schools, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities.”

That’s not true, when charters are compared to the neighboring schools students might otherwise attend, Malkus’ research has found. Half of charters have similar suspension rates. The rest are more likely to be lower than nearby district schools than they are to be higher.

In response to Education Secretary John King’s call for charters to rethink tough discipline policies, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli worries about top-down dictates to remove the suspension tool.

“There’s a big risk that discouraging schools from suspending kids will result in more disorder in the classroom (though in-school suspensions could keep that from happening),” Petrilli writes. “More disorder is disastrous for all kids, but especially poor children of color (who) make up the vast majority of the nation’s charter school population.”

Parents often choose charters because they’re more likely to provide a safe, orderly environment, he writes.

There’s a reasonable case, then, for simply making suspension data transparent to the public and to parents, who can decide which schools to shun and which to patronize.

Flypaper is running more responses to King’s speech on charter school discipline.

Teachers lose clout without suspension

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar as he and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visit a pre-K class. Photo: Associated Press

In 32 years teaching in New York City, Arthur Goldstein has had only one student suspended, he writes in the New York Daily News. But suspension was part of his discipline “toolkit.” Now, new rules give teachers fewer tools to maintain a learning environment.

“In Mayor de Blasio’s New York, when a kid curses you out in a crowded hallway, all you can do is call the kid’s parents,” Goldstein writes.

A colleague of mine, a rather large man, saw a boy and a girl getting passionate and physical in the hallway. He asked them to go to class.

The boy instructed my colleague to perform a vulgar act that may or may not be possible. My colleague was able to handle it in a professional manner, but found the consequences for the kid’s act to be mild indeed.

Why? Because principals must now get explicit approval from the central Department of Education for suspensions involving student insubordination.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote the new rules to “lessen suspensions that disproportionately remove black and Latino kids from school,” he writes. Suspensions are down by a third compared to last year.

Fewer kids are missing class, Goldstein writes. But teachers have less power to control their classrooms.

Instead of suspension, ‘positive redirection’

description
Sci Academy charter, which has the highest test scores of any open-enrollment school in New Orleans, has cut suspensions.

Sci Academy, a New Orleans charter school in a poor, black neighborhood is known for high test scores and college-bound graduates, writes Beth Hawkins in U.S. News. Along with two other schools in the Collegiate Academies network, it used to be known for strict discipline and a high suspension rate. Now the school is transforming discipline — without sacrificing order.

Sci Academy teachers try to prevent confrontations before they happen, writes Hawkins. If that doesn’t work, a student who’s disrupting class or fighting with a classmate is sent to the Positive Redirection Center, which is staffed by two adults.

After students fill out a questionnaire with sections labeled, “Own it,” “Fix it” and “Learn from it,” they get help framing and rehearsing a conversation with the school community member they harmed.

When Sci Academy students stay in the center for more than a couple of hours, they continue their work on a bank of computers that classroom teachers keep current. Center staff can administer exams.

The referring teacher or staffer talks to the student within 24 hours, says  Cornelius Dukes, dean of positive redirection. The key question: “What help do you need from me to prevent this from happening again?”

The school uses data to identify “students who need behavioral or emotional support,” writes Hawkins. There are four mental health professionals on campus. Data-crunching also shows “patterns that suggest a teacher needs coaching or a part of the school day needs to be restructured.”

20,000 NYC students apply to Success charters

More than 20,000 New York City students have applied for 3,228 available spots at Success Academy charter schools, reports the New York Post.

Admission is by lottery.

The network is opening five more elementary schools and two new middle schools this fall. Success will use a $25 million donation to fund expansion.

Test scores are very high for Success charter students, who are predominantly black and Latino. The schools have been criticized for tough discipline policies. Apparently, many parents don’t care.

St. Paul seeks equity, finds chaos


Brawls broke out at two St. Paul high schools in October. Photo: KSTP News

Some St. Paul public schools are unsafe for students and teachers, writes Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at the Center for the American Experiment, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

A Central High teacher was “choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury,” while another teacher was knocked down and suffered a concussion while trying to stop a fight between fifth-grade girls. There have been six high school riots or brawls this school year.

Hoping to close the racial suspension gap, the district has spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers and “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program, writes Kersten.

Aaron Benner

Student behavior is getting worse, says teacher Aaron Benner.

When that didn’t work, “they lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties,” she writes. Students can’t be suspended for “continual willful disobedience” any more. Often, students “chat briefly with a ‘behavior specialist’ or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.”

Behavior has gotten worse, wrote Aaron Benner, a veteran elementary teacher, in the Pioneer Press. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting.”

Teachers say they’re afraid, writes Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. He quotes a letter from an anonymous teacher, who says teacher are told there are no alternative placements for violent or disruptive K-8 students.

(Teachers) have no way to discipline. If a child is running around screaming, we let them run around and scream. If a student throws a chair at the Smart Board we remove the other students and call for help. If a student shouts obscenities, we simply use kind words to remind them to use kind words themselves. I am not kidding.

. . . The only consequence at the elementary level is taking away recess or sending the offending student to a ‘buddy classroom’ for a few minutes.

At this teacher’s high-poverty, highly diverse school, “I have many students in my class who are very respectful, work hard and care about doing well in school,” the teacher writes. “The disruptive, violent children are ruining the education of these fantastic, deserving children.”

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher, was put on leave after complaining about the discipline policy.

On March 9, a veteran high school teacher was suspended for social media posts complaining about the discipline policy, when Black Lives Matter activists charged him with racism.

Theo Olson, a special education teacher at Como Park High, wrote that teachers “now have no backup, no functional location to send kids who won’t quit gaming, setting up fights, selling drugs, whoring trains, or cyber bullying, we’re screwed, just designing our own classroom rules.”

He did not mention race.

Black Lives Matter had threatened a “shut-down action” at the school if Olson was not fired.

The same day Olson was put on leave, another Como Park teacher was attacked by two students, suffering a concussion. “The two entered the classroom to assault another student over a marijuana transaction gone bad,” an associate principal told the Star-Tribune.  Two 16-year-olds face felony assault charges.

Strict discipline lifts school — at a cost


Students aren’t allowed to talk in the halls at UP Academy Holland in Boston.

To turn around a chronically low-performing, disorderly school in Boston, the state education commissioner gave control to a nonprofit network, reports Peter Balonon-Rosen for WBUR. Now discipline is strict and scores are rising, but so are suspension rates. Is it worth it?

Each teacher clasps a stick striped in rainbow colors, with clothespins bearing the students’ names clipped on from top to bottom. If your clothespin is at the bottom, in the red zone, it means you’ve misbehaved. And everybody knows it.

It’s all part of the “broken windows” theory of discipline at UP Academy Holland, a Dorchester public school that was declared “failing” in 2013.

The school turnaround plan tells teachers to “sweat the small stuff,” writes Balonon-Rosen. There are “automatic consequence for rolling your eyes, or wiggling in your seat, or disputing an automatic, on up to fighting and other dangerous acts.”

While Holland’s test scores have gone up, the school suspended many more kindergarten and pre-k students than any school in Massachusetts in 2014-15. In response to a WBUR story, UP Education Network, which runs Holland and four other Massachusetts schools said it would stop suspending pre-K and kindergarten students.

Inside the discipline debate

A video of a Success Academy teacher ripping a student’s math paper has raised a debate about discipline at rigorous, “no excuses” charter schools, writes Elizabeth Green on Chalkbeat.

“No excuses” refers to adults using students’ poverty to explain — and tolerate — poor academic results, Green writes. However, many reformers believed effective schools must adopted the “broken windows” theory that holds tolerating small infractions leads to serious disorder.

At struggling schools, the no-excuses educators argued, learning was regularly undermined by chaos, from physical fights to a refusal to follow even basic directions.

. . . At no-excuses schools, students often walk from one class to another in orderly and perfectly silent single-file lines. Detailed instructions dictate precisely how and when students should pay attention, from nodding to folding their hands and legs just so — poses on display in the Success Academy video. Teachers sometimes ban conversation during breakfast or lunch.

Now, there’s a move to relax rigid rules and make no-excuses schools happier places. Green thinks charter leaders have the desire and ability to improve the model.

But I think this is her most important point:

Looking at test scores, all the highest academic results ever produced for poor students and students of color have come from no-excuses schools. Period.

. . . Success Academy charter schools, which ranked in the top 1 percent of all New York schools in math and the top 3 percent in English.

. . . Other life outcomes are impressive, too. Data collected by the KIPP charter school network in 2013 showed that 44 percent of the schools’ graduates go on to earn a four-year degree, compared to just 8 percent of low-income Americans.

The urban no-excuses charters have significantly improved the reading and math skills — and the odds of high school and college graduation — for students from low-income black and Latino families. No other model has done this consistently, writes Green.

It’s a long piece, but well worth reading in full. Let me know what you think.