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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Spokane Public Schools discipline is scrutinized by police and FBI, its proponents say system is working

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Emma Epperly and Jim Allen The Spokesman-Review

Seven years after outcry over disparities in punishment of disabled and minority students, Spokane Public Schools has, along with many school districts in Washington, worked to change its approach to discipline in schools.

That approach now is under fire from local law enforcement leaders and being investigated by the FBI.

A shift toward what is called restorative discipline and away from exclusionary punishment ramped up in 2019 and continued in 2020 when, unlike neighboring districts, Spokane schools removed school resource officers with the policing powers to arrest students, and replaced them with what the district describes as intervention specialists.

While the school district said it maintained a strong working relationship with police, the Spokane Police Department said schools could only be safe with law enforcement involvement.

Last month, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl accused the district of failing to report student violence. Days later, the FBI announced it was looking into Meidl’s claims. Police records obtained by The Spokesman-Review detail some of the incidents that raised the chief’s concern.

Meidl declined to comment further on the situation until the FBI’s review is complete. The school district also declined to answer questions related to the review by law enforcement.

Proponents of restorative discipline and former school employees, Fred Schrumpf and Bob Murphy, say the incidents Meidl references are extreme cases and, overall, the new approach has reduced suspensions, eliminated disproportionate discipline and increased graduation rates.

What is restorative discipline?

Restorative discipline is a “relationship-oriented” practice that provides an alternative to suspension or other exclusionary punishment, instead allowing students space and time to calm down before discussing why they acted out and giving the student a chance to repair the relationships they damaged, explained Schrumpf and Murphy, two experts who helped create the district’s program.

The system operates on three tiers. The first tier includes low-level behaviors such as name-calling.

Responding to tier one problems centers on preventing escalation, and might involve a class discussion to address tensions or rising issues.

Tier two issues are disruptive behaviors affecting a classroom or larger school community, Murphy said. The tier could include behaviors like a student stealing class supplies from a teacher, according to an example from the district. A possible repercussion for a situation like that would be returning the supplies, apologizing to the class, and then helping with class chores or cleanup.

Educators first should ask what happened, how the student was feeling, and how their actions affected others. Then they would ask everyone involved what they needed to resolve the problem. Finally, they would facilitate an agreement to meet the needs of everyone involved, Schrumpf said.

“Consequences are important, but (they) need to change behaviors. Behaviors change when youth are involved in the solution and feel the support,” Schrumpf said. “It’s also about treating people with dignity and respect.”

Part of the transition to restorative discipline was due to tier one and two offenses being referred to law enforcement, Murphy said.

Lastly, tier three infractions might include fights or threats, and could merit a suspension, other exclusion or even arrest, Murphy explained. These are serious and possibly dangerous situations. Despite the seriousness of the situation, restorative interventions can be used in conjunction with punishment.

Those include meetings to help the student re-engage in school when they return and group discussions to help repair harm and rebuild relationships.

The road to restorative discipline

In 2015, the Washington Legislature passed a bill focused on closing the “educational opportunity gap.” Among other things, the bill required school districts to create and publish student discipline policies and procedures, and required districts to publish data to monitor the effectiveness of those policies.

The law took effect on June 6, 2016. Three days later, Shelley Redinger, then the superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, signed a resolution addressing numerous issues related to school discipline.

Between 2012 and 2015, the district suspended or expelled approximately 8% of students, a rate significantly higher than the state average. Exclusionary discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions or expulsions, doesn’t change behavior and causes harm to all students, the resolution read. The more school a student misses, the less likely they are to graduate.

The district also noted that it was referring too many children for criminal prosecution for misdemeanor offenses in school.

Students who were members of minority racial and ethnic groups, as well as low-income and special needs students, were disciplined at a disproportionately high rate, the district acknowledged.

In the resolution, Redinger vowed to implement a restorative discipline system to address the inequities. She launched an initiative to implement restorative discipline throughout the district and a workgroup to help shape the program.

Two members of that initial workgroup were Murphy and Schrumpf.

Murphy is a former teacher and school administrator in Alaska who now lives in Spokane and does mediation work for local school districts. Schrumpf is a longtime school administrator and former principal at Havermale High School. He has written books on school discipline, including one titled “Creating a Peaceable School,” focused on teaching conflict resolution.

“I think at the foundation, it’s a lot about philosophy and culture,” Schrumpf said of restorative discipline.

Instead of punishing a child for acting out, a teacher using restorative principles will teach children to communicate with those they’ve hurt, resolve issues and differences of opinion, and plan how to avoid conflict and harm in the future.

“These are applied life skills that schools want to teach,” Schrumpf said.

Throughout the process of implementing the change, it became clear that the role of school resource officers needed to be redefined, Schrumpf said. Many misdemeanors committed in schools were being referred to juvenile court that should have been handled in school, he said.

In 2020, the district shifted to campus safety specialists, who focus on the root cause of a student’s inappropriate behavior, said Shawn Jordan, chief operations officer, in a January interview. The safety specialists aren’t commissioned through the Spokane Police Department, as resource officers were.

Dawn Sidell, founder of the Northwest Autism Center, was concerned with the disproportionate exclusion of disabled students, when the data was released in 2016.

She became a member of the Every Student Counts Alliance, a group that formed around that time to advocate for discipline reforms. The group has achieved many of their main goals, including the rates of discipline becoming more equitable.

The root of the problem, Sidell believes, was a lack of supports addressing behavioral health.

“You use what you’ve got,” Sidell said.

That used to be school resource officers who she said would often send kids into the criminal justice system for minor infractions.

Proponents of the restorative justice approach believe discipline will be more successful if kept in the school system.

“The closer we keep to the school the more success that they’re going to have,” Schrumpf said.

Targeted violence and threat assessment

School districts often use threat assessment teams to prevent targeted and extreme violence, as in the case of a school shooting threat.

Most school districts in the region, including Spokane Public Schools, use the Salem-Keizer Cascade threat assessment model.

The model was created by John Van Dreal, a school psychologist and former director of safety and risk management at the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon. He began creating the model in 1999 and now consults with school districts throughout the country, including in Spokane, on how to implement the assessment.

There are two levels of threat assessment in the model, which is also used and supported by NorthEast Washington Educational Service District 101.

Threat assessment groups are meant for students who show signs of planning extreme aggression in advance toward pre-identified targets, said Courtenay McCarthy, a school psychologist and associate at Van Dreal’s consulting group.

Much of the initial training on the threat assessment centers on the differences between targeted violence and normal childhood behavior, McCarthy said.

When there’s a threat that fits the criteria for a level one threat assessment, a team convened at the school, largely with school administrators, teachers, counselors, coaches and school safety staff, evaluate the situation. Law enforcement should be connected to the process in some form, McCarthy said.

The goal of the threat assessment team is to prevent one person from making decisions in isolation about how to handle the threat, McCarthy said.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, school counselors would use a checklist to evaluate the child making threats one-on-one, McCarthy said. Those assessments often resulted in counselors looking at personality traits or demographics rather than the actual situation and behavior. Now, best practices don’t support checklists or single-person evaluation and instead focus on addressing the behavior from a variety of viewpoints.

A level one threat assessment can be conducted in less than a day, with team members coming together, interviewing the student, their parents, witnesses and potential victims, and then assessing how best to prevent the violence and creating a plan to manage behavior in the future.

Those management plans include extra supervision, limiting contact with a potential victim, discussions with parents about weapons access and checking for weapons at schools. Focusing on engaging students in things that are already going well for them is also important, McCarthy said.

If the threat is not imminent the process can stretch out over a week or more, McCarthy said.

Level one threat assessments are common for things like social media threats and targeted bullying.

If a student is continuing to exhibit threatening behavior after a level one assessment and is unable to stick with their restoration plan, a level two assessment can be conducted that brings in more outside help to manage the situation.

That help can come from a variety of agencies, like child protective services, juvenile court, law enforcement or outside psychological care. Typicallly, level two assessments can’t be managed in a school setting, McCarthy explained.

Currently, the district calls police only if they believe there’s an imminent danger of violence. McCarthy said the National Threat Assessment Center, run by the Secret Service, has recommended that schools develop criteria for calling law enforcement.

Even if law enforcement isn’t on the threat assessment team, it’s important schools have a partnership with law enforcement so they’re aware of incidents occurring outside of school and receiving a public safety perspective, McCarthy said.

The Spokane School Board was presented with proposed procedures earlier this year that would prohibit staff, except for a designated safety officer, from contacting law enforcement in many nonemergency situations. The safety officer could seek police intervention in six specific instances: sex crimes, first-degree robbery, first-degree assault, use or possession of deadly weapons, suicide and homicide.

On its face, the procedure would prohibit police from being contacted for some felony crimes, including second-degree assault, which is an assault that “inflicts substantial bodily harm,” according to Washington law.

Soon after Meidl made his concerns about Spokane Public Schools discipline public, district officials said the procedure was not in effect. Its status, however, is unclear.

Prevention and early intervention are paramount to avoiding school attacks and violence, a 2021 study by the Secret Service found.

Most students who plot school violence had histories of school discipline and contact with law enforcement, had mental health issues, intended to commit suicide as part of the attack, used drugs or alcohol, and had been impacted by adverse childhood experiences.

Targeted school violence is preventable if early warning signs are reported early, the study found. Schools should intervene with students before their behavior warrants legal consequences, the study found. It is something Murphy and Schrumpf say restorative discipline can help with.

Students are the ones best positioned to identify and report concerning behaviors from their classmates, the Secret Service study concluded. Students and school staff, who have been taught to openly and quickly address issues and grievances, are better prepared to help their peers modify their behavior and re-engage, according to the tenets of restorative discipline.

Is it working?

Within the district, public criticism of Spokane’s restorative practices model is virtually non-existent.

However, during a school board meeting on March 23, retired teacher Brad Cossette brought up some concerns. 

“I’m also tired of hearing about a system that does not teach accountability,” said Cossette, who taught in the district for 39 years.

“Restorative practices can be a very effective tool, but use it too often and everyone suffers,” Cossette said.

Restorative justice has not been embraced by all states; in fact only 21 states, including Washington and Idaho, have enacted legislation supporting its use.

Nationally, the practice has its share of critics. They contend that the process takes too long, that it can be too emotionally draining on the people involved and places too much of a burden on teachers.

Others believe that it places an unfair or unrealistic expectation on victims and survivors – to speak with those who harmed them and to forgive them.

Defenders say that no one is compelled to do so; rather, the goal is mutual understanding.

The question of accountability is more complicated. Critics say that it won’t happen without some form of punishment. Proponents believe that accountability takes the form of self-responsibility and various agreements designed to repair harm and make things right.

The Independent, a libertarian think tank, claims that it “effectively institutionalized the notion that schools must sacrifice security to achieve equity, endangering students and teachers alike.”

But is it working? Data is promising, though incomplete.

Advocates of restorative practices, such as the International Institute for Restorative Practices, developer of the SaferSanerSchools program, cite examples in Philadelphia and San Antonio of steep drops in violent incidents.

However, those studies may have been affected by educators’ decisions on whether to resolve some offenses through restorative practices or discipline. Those decisions are “extremely subjective and may not be a true indicator of student behavior,” researchers from the Rand Corporation said in 2016.

Moreover, incidents of violence, weapons and arrests were unchanged, and academic outcomes did not improve in treatment schools – and worsened in middle schools, Rand researchers said.

At Spokane Public Schools, the data also is unclear.

During a board meeting on March 23, staff presented a report on exclusions – that is, suspensions and expulsions. As of mid-March, about 130 days into the 180-day school year, the district reported 1,958 total exclusions.

If that trend continues, the district could expect to see about 2,711 exclusions. That is a 9% drop from the 2018-19, the last full pre-pandemic year, when the district had 3,045 exclusions.

However, middle school expulsions are tracking up this year, with 510 through mid-March compared to 608 for the entire 2018-19 school year.

Supporters of restorative discipline and critics of Meidl’s letter have been much more vocal.

The Every Student Counts Alliance wrote a letter to city of Spokane leadership, asking law enforcement to “engage in collaborative communication” on school safety. The letter outlines the steps advocates have taken in recent years to reform school discipline and expressed frustration at Meidl’s public criticism without talking to school leadership first.

“A letter threatening to arrest teachers does not create an educational or socially successful environment,” the letter reads. “After years of daily trauma inside and outside the classroom, writing a letter that threatens the progress being made in Spokane Public Schools has only strained relations between the district and the community.”

Kenji Liane-Booey, author of the letter, and regional field director for the League of Education Voters, said the organization wrote the letter to correct what it called inaccurate impressions given by Meidl’s letter.

Like the idea that teachers aren’t fulfilling their role as mandatory reporters, something Meidl has since walked back.

“It feels like he wants more funding and he wants police back in schools,” Liane-Booey said of the letter.

Sidell agreed, noting she worked on a superintendents work group with Meidl and none of his concerns were voiced there. The letter left her confused and frustrated, she said.

“What was disheartening is kind of a blanket indictment of the district’s approach and practice,” Sidell said. “I’m not seeing the alignment of that general statement with the current policies and philosophy of the district.”

Julie Acona-Shepard, who is a part of Every Student Counts, said under the previous model kids were being arrested for “doing stupid stuff that kids do.”

With less police involvement in schools, referrals to the criminal justice system have dropped. She believes Meidl’s stance is an unnecessary attempt to increase police involvement in schools.

“I took it as a threat toward teachers and staff,” she said of the letter. “As a way to get teachers to report more.”

While she believes police presence in schools should be limited, law enforcement is a crucial part of keeping school safe from targeted violence, she said.

“Let these experts do their jobs,” she said, of police involvement. “Be there to take the calls.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on April 28, 2022 to remove information that was incorrectly attributed to retired teacher Brad Cossette.