Sitting around a table, a group of Tacoma Public Schools officials and community members are talking about how to solve one of the most vexing problems in public education: student discipline.
The discussion, by the district’s Student Conduct Discipline Committee, takes place against a backdrop of statistics that tell two kinds of stories, one positive, one negative.
On the plus side: Trends over the past few years point to an increasing districtwide percentage of Tacoma students avoiding suspension and expulsion. The district intentionally tracks the data as a positive — the percentage of kids who are doing the right thing.
On the minus side: Tacoma’s discipline numbers are still higher than many neighboring districts. And persistent gaps between racial groups mean students of color are disciplined at disproportionately high rates.
“Holistically, we want discipline to go down,” said Jennifer Kubista, the school district’s director of student life, who oversees the discipline committee. “We also need to focus on disproportionality. Part of our challenge is building better relationships with all students and understanding culturally where they are coming from.”
Kubista presented some discipline statistics at a recent school board meeting. She plans to return to the school board in the coming months with a more detailed look at racial breakdowns. At the same time, the discipline committee is meeting periodically so members can brainstorm solutions.
There are still disparities among groups
Liesl Santkuyl, Vibrant Schools Tacoma
“Overall, I’m happy to see the positive direction,” said Liesl Santkuyl, a member of advocacy group Vibrant Schools Tacoma, which has been lobbying the school district for more action on racial disparities among student groups. “It looks like things are trending in the right direction, with fewer out-of-school disciplinary actions. But there are still disparities among groups. Less disparity, but still disparity.”
“I often hear in the community that there is a perception of inequitable application of discipline policies,” said Amanda Scott-Thomas, director of the school district’s community partnership office and a member of the discipline committee. “Race is a part of it.”
But she said other biases may involve student gender, age, special education status or family income status.
Legislation now awaiting the governor’s signature could affect how student discipline plays out. On Thursday, the Legislature approved a bill that prohibits long-term suspensions or expulsions for noncriminal offenses, and also requires school districts to convene a “re-engagement meeting” with suspended or expelled students and families.
Students who do receive suspensions or expulsions for more than 10 days could not be kept out of school for more than one academic term, such as a semester. And districts must give students an opportunity to keep up with school work during a suspension or expulsion.
Part of our challenge is building better relationships with all students
Jennifer Kubista, director of student life
Tacoma committee member Patrick Johnson, the school district’s director of equity and academic achievement, said it’s important to figure out whether the positive trends seen so far in Tacoma stem from changes in student behavior or whether teachers are changing how they react to student misconduct.
“We need to analyze why we are seeing the changes,” Johnson said.
Teacher Lisa Leen believes classroom discipline should mean less punishment and more teaching — giving students the opportunity to learn what’s expected of them.
One idea that’s been around for a while, but is getting new attention in public education, is called restorative justice. Students meet in small groups to air grievances and talk through problems.
“Kids hold each other accountable,” Leen said.
Scott-Thomas wondered what would happen if students were given the opportunity to write or say what they believe led up to an incident of misconduct.
“Kids don’t feel heard,” she said.
Kids hold each other accountable
Teacher Lisa Leen
Kubista credits school district staff for helping to move trends in the right direction.
She also cites the district’s Tacoma Whole Child Initiative — a partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma — which has cut down on disciplinary referrals. The program, which started in the 2012-13 school year, aims to reduce disciplinary incidents by educating students about what’s expected of them and reinforcing their positive behaviors. The initiative has given teachers tools to better gauge the emotional climate in their classrooms.
It offers guidelines on what kinds of behaviors should result in which kinds of discipline — for example, what could be handled in the classroom instead of sending a child to the principal’s office.
Teachers learn how to help students find ways to channel their anger, such as teaching them how to take a few deep breaths to calm down instead of instantly exploding.
One idea assigns different colors to different feelings — red for hot issues such as anger, blue for sadness, green for students who feel great and yellow for students who are somewhere in between. A teacher might ask students returning from recess to place a colored stick that corresponds to their feelings in a bucket. A glance at the array of colors gives the teacher an immediate read on how the class is feeling and what kinds of issues might arise as kids transition from outside play to indoor study.
Kids don’t feel heard
Amanda Scott-Thomas, director, community partnership office
In addition to tracking discipline statistics, Tacoma also looks at data it gathers from surveys of students known as the Healthy Youth Survey, administered periodically to youths around the state. The anonymous survey asks students about such things as fighting and gang membership, substance abuse and skipping school.
One emerging trend from that study is the growth in the percentage of students who say they have considered self-harm. Kubista said the numbers are up in Tacoma over the past five years.
She said the school district wants to be able to have support plans in place for those students. But she notes that educators are not trained as mental health counselors.
The district is working with outside agencies such as Comprehensive Life Resources and Consejo, which offers behavioral health services to Latino kids and families, to bring counseling into schools and to help break down the stigma that can surround mental health treatment. Right now, programs are operating in a half dozen schools. In time, Kubista said, the goal is to have those kinds of counseling services available at every Tacoma school.
To see more details about Tacoma’s student discipline statistics, go to http://bit.ly/1p37yCy
Discipline by race
This chart shows the number of students in selected grades and racial groups with discipline referrals during the current school year, through mid-February. It also shows the percentage of each racial group within that grade who were referred for discipline.
1 student 0.5%
10 students 3.9%
3 students 1.3%
30 students 6.5%
63 students 16.4%
29 students 8.4%
14 students 3.3%
22 students 6%
12 students 4.3%
9 students 8.3%
14 students 15.6%
5 students 6.2%
0 students 0%
3 students 8.8%
1 student 4.3%
3 students 3.8%
6 students 9.8%
4 students 6.3%
16 students 1.8%
65 students 7.4%
32 students 4%
Source: Tacoma Public Schools