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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools tries active but patient approach to decrease suspensions

When David Staley was caught with marijuana at school for the third time, he figured he was done. A short, muscular, 17-year-old junior at North Central High School, Staley had a reputation for breaking the rules.

Just weeks before being caught with weed, he “flipped out on my teacher,” he said, swearing and storming out of the classroom.

Staley is quiet and – despite his rabble-rousing reputation – sweet, said North Central’s Dean of Students Mary O Gustafson.

“He was a mess,” she said of Staley after his third drug violation. “But malicious? No.”

Staley wasn’t kicked out of school. Instead, Gustafson and others sat down with him and tried to work out why he was acting out. Staley wrote “accountability essays” that broke down what he’d done wrong, and how he could make amends. He turned over his cellphone to the school office staff at the beginning of each school day. He started going to drug and alcohol counseling sessions. He spent time at North Central’s dedicated intervention classroom, designed to give students who have gotten in trouble a place in school to work.

North Central has embraced restorative discipline, which puts a premium on relationships. The approach addresses persistent discipline issues including the disproportionate discipline of minorities and special-education students.

Gone are the days of zero tolerance, Gustafson said.

With the new policies in place, the school cut its out-of-school suspension rate by two-thirds.

“We’re going to keep our kids,” Gustafson said. “We’re not going to throw them out.”

Staley stayed in school, until late April, when he left campus to smoke a cigarette, an act Gustafson said was motivated largely by his addiction. Still, it was the last straw and Staley was suspended, she said.

Even now, however, Staley still has chances. The school has set him up with a drug and alcohol counselor, whom he meets with every day. Additionally, his teachers are sending him his schoolwork so he doesn’t fall too far behind, Gustafson said.

“That’s more important now, getting clean and stuff like that,” she said.

And Gustafson, for her part, fully expects to have Staley back at school in September.

“I really love this school,” Staley said. “Most of my teachers have really helped me out.”

Minorities, those with disabilities suspended more often

The districtwide push toward restorative discipline practices, like those used at North Central, is connected to an effort started five years ago to lower the district’s dropout rate, which was about 30 percent at that time, said Fred Schrumpf, the district’s director of on-time graduation.

Schrumpf and others started focusing on ways to provide children with academic options. Since then the dropout rate has been cut in half – it was 15.5 percent in 2015.

The closer the dropout rate gets to zero, though, the harder it becomes to reach the remaining at-risk students, Schrumpf said. Those students typically suffer from trauma, mental health issues or other deeper-seated problems that are mostly out of the school’s direct control, he said. Often those children who need to stay in school the most are being suspended and expelled, Schrumpf said.

“I always hate blaming a school because they can’t help who walks through the door,” he said.

Spokane’s discipline rate was the highest in the state in 2015, with roughly 8 percent of all students in the district being suspended or expelled. But even more troubling, Schrumpf said, is who is being disciplined.

Black students are suspended or expelled almost two times as often as other students, while students with 504 plans – those who have disabilities, which can include learning or attention issues – are suspended or expelled three times more often. Schrumpf believes restorative discipline practices would bring equity back into discipline, as would additional training.

“I think as a district our teachers and administrators need more training in cultural competency,” he said.

Teachers don’t disagree with Schrumpf’s assessment and are largely on board with restorative discipline efforts, said Jenny Rose, president of the Spokane Education Association union. But teachers, particularly at the elementary level, don’t feel they have the support they need.

The kind of total involvement required by restorative discipline asks more from teachers and administrators. And if the support isn’t there, in the form of additional staff and resources, staff and students are put at risk, Rose said.

Right now there’s not much consistency from school to school, she said.

“We have some schools that have a discipline plan in place. We have other schools that do not,” Rose said.

“Our current system is not working,” Rose said at the May 11 Spokane Public Schools board meeting. “There is not a week that goes by that I don’t hear a story about a staff member being injured on the job by the students.”

Childhood stress, exposure to violence blamed

Michaela Jones teaches third grade at Lidgerwood Elementary in north Spokane. On a recent Friday, Jones was decompressing from a week in which one student called her a name she refused to repeat and another said, “I hope you die in a fire.”

Jones said she doesn’t take such insults and threats personally, instead seeing the outbursts as a symptom of a larger problem.

“It’s not actually (aimed) at me,” she said. “I know this kid loves me and that I love him.”

The students Jones sees are increasingly traumatized and angry, she said. Jones believes these classroom behaviors can be blamed on an increase in childhood stress and exposure to violence. Her third-grade students often bring up terrorist attacks as a persistent fear.

Prior to teaching at Lidgerwood, Jones worked in a behavioral intervention room with students who couldn’t be in general education classes because of behavioral issues. She said she sees the same kind of problems now among the third-graders in her general-education class.

“There have been days when I worry for my kids’ safety in my classroom,” she said. “We don’t have the staffing. We don’t have the people to actually help them.”

Jones believes that restorative discipline practices are fundamental to addressing these behavior issues. However, the schools aren’t providing the necessary time, space or training, she said.

When she has a disruptive student, her only option short of asking for his or her suspension is to send that student to another teacher’s classroom, Jones said. This is known as a buddy room, and is an informal agreement between teachers. The students aren’t integrated into the class, and are often not even the same age as their classmates.

“Our major belief is we don’t want to send kids home,” Jones said.

Jones and other teachers said adding intervention rooms at the elementary school level would be a tremendous help. Additionally, Jones believes teachers need more training in de-escalation tactics, as well more training about restorative discipline.

The district wants to emphasize restorative discipline, she said; “This sounds fabulous, (but) how do we do it?”

“We have responded”

District officials agree that teachers need more support, and they say they are taking steps in that direction.

“I think often in education, and in business too, when you do something new there can be an implementation dip,” said Brian Melody, elementary school director. “We have some catching up to do.”

Melody and elementary school director Jennifer Keck agree that teachers are dealing with more extreme behaviors in the classroom. That’s partly because the types of students the district is serving are changing dramatically. An increase in students from group homes and foster care often comes with more behavior issues, they said.

To address that, the district has nearly tripled the number of mental health counselors at schools, Melody and Keck said at the May 11 school board meeting. The district also is hiring more principal assistants and school behavior specialists, and working closely with a variety of local social service organizations.

“We have responded,” Melody said.

Melody said district officials are trying to address the consistency concern raised by Rose by developing school discipline plans for each elementary.

Implementing change in the state’s second-largest school district will take time, Keck said.

“I think it’s more challenging when the behaviors are more extreme,” Keck said.

A numbers game

Some question the district’s commitment to restorative practices and suspect the district is more interested in lowering discipline rates than in making real change.

Rosey Thurman, the staff attorney for TeamChild in Spokane, believes the district is playing a numbers game.

“I think the community agrees with the teachers that the district has not fully committed to restorative discipline,” Thurman said.

Thurman believes the district has put teachers in an untenable position by expecting fewer suspensions while not providing the necessary resources. She said she sees this regularly with her clients in her work providing legal aid to youth.

One of her clients, for example, is a student with an IQ of 48 who is regularly disciplined. Yet Thurman doesn’t believe the student is learning anything useful from that discipline. What’s more, he shouldn’t be held responsible for the behaviors prompting the discipline because of his intellectual disability, she said.

She believes that’s indicative of a system more interested in the easy fix that suspension can provide.

Mona Ammon, a sixth-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, said she’s willing to work individually with problem students, if she had the time and support.

“What is happening with your other 27 kids when you’re stepping out to deal with this student one-on-one?” Ammon said. “I’m supposed to be teaching but instead I’m giving a counseling session.”

Gustafson, North Central’s dean of students, agrees that without the correct support, restorative practices are not effective. Up until this year, North Central didn’t have a dedicated intervention room. Now that they do, Gustafson said they are much better equipped to work with students.

Wide buy-in necessary for the model to work

Sitting in a small, windowless office at Chief Garry Middle School, James Wilburn is one part of the district’s response to the discipline question.

Wilburn, the former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, is the supervisor and sole staff member of the Youth Initiatives and Community Parent Involvement office. Wilburn is an employee of the school district and the city of Spokane. His role, he said, is to work with struggling children and their families.

“You’ve got to fix the whole thing because the systems are connected,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn primarily works with students of color. Typically those students come from high-poverty, high-trauma backgrounds. Their behavior in the classroom is often directly motivated by their home-life experiences and their experiences as a minority student.

“Teachers have to stop taking it personally,” he said. “Many teachers don’t know how to say, ‘Oh wait, OK. I’m going to be the adult in the room.’ ”

Wilburn says he’s seen good things happening in the district. Superintendent Shelley Redinger is supportive of efforts to lower the discipline rate and there is an increased understanding of the issues minority students face.

Recently the district hired an outside firm, the Burns Institute, to review its discipline data. Malachi Garza, director of Community Justice Network for Youth, which is part of the Burns Institute, said Spokane has problems when it comes to equitable discipline. However, teachers and administrators were receptive to change.

“Every teacher we talked to was very forthcoming and forthright about having disparities in school discipline,” Garza said.

Garza said the willingness is a good start, but it needs to be followed up by support.

“There were a lot of clear requests for training,” Garza said.

It appears that when the efforts are supported they work. But, as evidenced by Staley, it’s not easy, or guaranteed. Gustafson said the only way restorative discipline can be effective is if the entire school, from administrators to janitors, buys into the program.

At North Central, Principal Steve Fisk and Assistant Principal Wendy Bromley are actively engaged and supportive of Gustafson’s efforts.

“I think it was just a commitment that we were going to do everything possible not to suspend a kid,” Bromley said.

Jones, the third-grade teacher from Lidgerwood Elementary, agrees with Bromley.

“It’s going to cost the schools more upfront, but if we teach these kid these skills we will spend less money on jail,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, David Staley, the North Central junior, is attending school twice a week and going to drug and alcohol counseling.

“I”m trying to make it easier on them,” he said of school administrators and teachers. “One less student they have to worry about.”