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Sea change in student discipline 

Christiana Otuwa spent much of the last school year scrutinizing every potential suspension in the Rochester City School District. Otuwa, who is deputy superintendent of city schools, makes the final decision on whether a student should be suspended.

She asks: Does the punishment fit the wrongdoing? Has the student received support services? Is it the student's first suspension? What do school officials know, if anything, about the student's family and home life?

Otuwa is also the district's representative on the Rochester Community Task Force on School Climate. The 50-member group, which formed last year and includes parents, educators, and advocacy groups, recently released its proposal for a completely rewritten Code of Conduct Policy for city schools. (The proposed policy and related survey are on the district's website, www.rcsdk12.org/Page/41125.)

The policy is the result of a report last year from Metro Justice that showed, among other findings, that 89 percent of suspensions in the Rochester school district during the 2013-2014 school year were for nonviolent offenses. And students of color and students with disabilities were suspended at significantly higher rates than their white peers.

The release of the proposed policy coincided with a trip that Bolgen Vargas, superintendent of Rochester schools; Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association; and Tim Cliby, president of the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester made to the White House.

The trio took part in a conference with school districts from around the country that are re-evaluating their approach to student discipline —moving away from punitive, zero-tolerance models to models based on restorative justice principles.

Otuwa says that reducing suspensions, though crucial, is only one aspect of the new approach. And even though the task force's policy recommendation is not final, some new practices, such as Otuwa's direct review of suspensions, have already begun.

"We're changing people's attitudes from punitive to supportive," she says. "Our students, teachers, and parents all need more support. How do we do that together?"

Otuwa says that two of the district's historical problems with student discipline have been a lack of clarity about exactly what behavior rises to the level of a suspension, and applying discipline consistently across all schools. And she says that she's been working on correcting those things.

"We started analyzing the suspension data weekly, looking at patterns," she says. "Then the [school] chiefs talked with principals about those patterns."

Making the change to a restorative justice model could take three to four years to fully implement in Rochester, Otuwa says. It's more than a policy directive, she says, or a new program. It is a seismic shift in attitudes that will touch every student, teacher, parent, and administrator, she says, and involve a completely different way of thinking about urban education.

Some proponents of the approach, which has been around for centuries, describe it as a philosophy. Over the last 20 years, restorative justice has regained attention after showing promising results resolving conflicts and building healthy relationships in schools, neighborhood groups, religious organizations, and correctional facilities.

The proposed policy change for Rochester's schools relies on a set of principles, such as promoting positive behavior, emphasizing prevention over intervention, using suspension as a last resort, and keeping student discipline out of the hands of police and away from the criminal justice system.

And the proposed policy uses a scale of responses that should be taken when incidents occur. For example, inappropriate and disruptive behavior such as excessive absences and cheating would be lower-level offenses that trigger support services.

Attacking another student and causing bodily harm, however, is a higher-level problem in grades 5 to 12, and could lead to short-term suspension.

But embedded in all disciplinary action is a social-emotional component that encourages students to work together as peers to solve some of their differences, says Ruth Turner, director of counseling and social work in city schools.

"Let's take the incidence of two students fighting," she says. "The support staff — school counselor, social worker, or psychologist — will facilitate what we call a restorative circle. They will bring those two parties involved in the fight together to address the wrongdoing through reflective questioning to help students understand that their behavior has an impact not just on them. It has an impact on their entire classroom, their teacher, and their parents."

The goal, Turner says, is to get students to build empathy and understand that what that they do — good and bad — impacts an entire community. When they feel that they are included in that community, she says, they become less motivated to act out.

"Hurt people hurt other people," Turner says. "We want to spend 80 percent of our time in relationship- and community-building, and hopefully spend 20 percent dealing with wrongdoing."

No one is excusing bad behavior, Turner says. But if the emotional component is ignored, she says, students will likely repeat the behavior.

The district has begun training counselors, social workers, and psychologists in restorative practices, Otuwa says. And 15 schools have volunteered to adopt the approach, she says.

The early changes could already be having an impact. According to an analysis, suspensions, though still in the thousands, dropped by nearly 10 percent in the 2014-2015 school year from the year before.

But not everyone is on board with the shift. Critics say that restorative justice practices are another education fad. And some teachers and principals say that they are already under intense pressure phasing in the Common Core curriculum and coping with a new evaluation system.

One long-time district teacher who asked not to be identified says that teachers feel left out of another major policy change — although there are teachers on the task force. And people are worried, this teacher says, that the changes will be foisted on teachers and principals without sufficient support staff — namely, counselors and social workers.

It's true that each social worker is responsible for an entire school building, which can mean oversight of 1,000 students, Turner says. But both Turner and Otuwa say that school staff can draw on a team of advisors from central office who can quickly mobilize around a student's needs, and the district can draw on outside agencies for additional, more specialized support.

"I'm going to be very honest," Turner says. "The need is great, but we're doing the very best we can with the resources we have."

And everyone knows that the more punitive approach hasn't worked, she says.

"I've spoken to a lot of people across the entire spectrum of this community, and they get it," Turner says. "This is the humane way of dealing with people."

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