Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Dec. 10, 2019

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Local View: Rethinking discipline shifts focus to student needs

Published: November 10, 2019, 6:01am

On Oct. 24, The Columbian reported on discrepancies in Vancouver Public Schools, that students of color or with disabilities are suspended or expelled at higher rates than white and non-disabled students. Attention to this situation stemmed from an analysis by the state attorney general’s office.

I encourage us all to look further. We need to deeply reduce, if not eliminate, suspensions and expulsions for all students. We need alternate ways to respond. When a student misbehaves, he is communicating something. Rather than “What’s wrong with you?” educators are learning to ask “What has been happening to you?” We now know that adverse childhood experiences (neglect, abuse) have biological repercussions that interfere with self-management, responsible decision-making, learning, relationship building and more. And there is “stress contagion,” so even witnesses and bystanders experience stress from trauma around them. When students misbehave, there are other ways to respond besides punishment.

But there is good news. Washington state has standards, benchmarks, and indicators for social and emotional learning (SEL). Across the state, all our students should have the opportunity to learn self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, getting along with others, self-efficacy and social engagement. These are the bedrock of our society, the original impetus for public schools in our country.

SEL curricula exist and they are manageable for teachers to implement. With SEL, not only do students learn things like how their brain works, to calm themselves, to share thoughts and feelings, and to be kind, but their academic learning improves, as well (Durlak, et al. 2011). SEL is a proactive way to help students not only avoid difficulties, but to think and feel positively.

Pulling in the same direction

Further, from indigenous communities we can all learn about restorative practices — using community circles, elders along with those harmed and those who did harm to express facts and feelings, and for both parties to suggest how to repair harm (relevant accountability). We all need to stop, breathe, listen to one another, and problem-solve jointly. And the student who misbehaved needs a pathway to returning to the classroom community so they can continue to learn.

Another misconception is that teachers are independent agents. Schools are complex systems; they have a culture, a collection of ways things are done, and they have a climate, a feeling among the people there — including coaches, cafeteria staff, custodians, bus drivers, as well as students and faculty — of ease, of family, of safety, or (we hope not) discomfort. This does not emerge from one classroom, but from a shared philosophy and shared practices.

Responding to misbehavior is certainly one of those shared practices. While we often honor outstanding teachers, what we ought to be honoring is outstanding schools — places where the entire adult team is pulling in the same direction to help all students thrive — emotionally, socially, and academically.

Ironically, Vancouver Public Schools had a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant (2014-19) to transform school climate. One school, Hudson’s Bay High School, did indeed work hard to achieve much of this vision, but this effort was not districtwide. What has been learned at Bay needs to be shared across the district, the county and beyond.

It does take a village, not just one teacher, to raise a child. Our state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction provides much guidance. Perhaps it could find other measures to collect, besides expulsions and suspensions, to understand how schools are doing and thereby shift the focus to productive, restorative practices for responding to student behavior. All of us, regardless of whether we have children in school, share a civic responsibility to see that all students can learn with dignity.

Rheta Rubenstein of Ridgefield is professor emerita at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.