Is the Effort to Curb Strict Discipline Going Too Far, Too Fast?

One Washington State school district shows just how difficult it can be to quickly reduce suspensions without alienating teachers.

by The Hechinger Report
Originally Published: 
A woman looking at the stressed out girl in the school hallway

URIEN, Wash. — One of the more radical transformations in public education today begins with a simple greeting each morning among second-graders.

“Good morning, Mahlet,” says one student to another at McMicken Heights Elementary School. “Good morning, Liliana,” the second student responds.

The exercise continues briskly until all 23 students seated in a circle have been recognized; then the children stand and greet three classmates each with handshakes and solid eye contact. Next, a handful of students are chosen to ask questions of their peers. While the query can be basic, such as “What kinds of movies do you like?,” some of the seven-year-olds struggle to formulate a question and ask it with a strong voice. “I’m not comfortable with that question,” one girl says after she receives a vague inquiry about her feelings. When another student is asked about her favorite color, she politely says, “Can you ask me a harder question?”

This activity, part of a Yale-designed program to build students’ social skills, usually runs for at least 20 minutes each day in all 18 elementary schools in Highline Public Schools, a racially diverse district just south of Seattle.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the original article by Wayne D’Orio.

“Teachers say, ‘I know more about my students than ever before,’ ” says Alexandria Haas, the principal of this pre-K-6 school. And that knowledge, she believes — combined with new strategies to help students regulate their emotions — has contributed to a 43 percent drop in the number of children referred for discipline from 2014 to 2016, according to school data.

This morning exercise is just one small part of Highline’s ambitious transformation from a district that embraced strict discipline to one noted for its efforts to reduce suspensions. According to administrators, between 2013 and 2016, the district of about 19,000 students slashed its number of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions from 1,628 to 475. (The number edged back up in 2016-17 to 682 incidents.)

Highline slashed its out-of-school suspensions by 71 percent in three years.

Highline’s efforts come as the country appears poised to dive back into a national discussion about school discipline. During the 1990s, amid rising fears of youth violence, many districts adopted zero tolerance policies mandating suspensions for certain offenses, including relatively minor infractions such as shoving other students or cursing. Suspension rates nearly doubled between 1973 and 2006. Racial disparities in school discipline, meanwhile, are stark: Black students are roughly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, according to 2014 data from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

The pendulum started to swing back in 2014 when the Obama administration issued a 7,500-word letter warning schools against racial discrimination in discipline. While some districts were already working to reduce suspensions, the federal push spurred more schools to revamp their disciplinary procedures. So, too, did the growing body of evidence documenting the harm associated with pulling students out of school: One study, for example, found that students’ chances of dropping out doubled with their first suspension. Today, most of the nation’s largest school districts are actively trying to reduce out-of-school suspensions, while more than 25 states have passed legislation to accomplish the same goal.

But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has put school discipline back on the table by telling reporters she is “looking closely” at whether to change the 2014 federal guidance, which some conservative critics have blamed for sowing “classroom chaos.” The Department of Education declined to offer more details on its plan, but it has already sparked pushback: In mid-December, more than 50 members of Congress sent DeVos a letter opposing any changes.

Highline has been notable for how quickly it sought to slash out-of-school suspensions. While the district’s disciplinary overhaul has drawn praise from local leaders and some education experts, it has triggered criticism from teachers, who worry that they weren’t trained adequately in alternative approaches to discipline. Teacher turnover, in part fueled by these changes, has jumped in the last two years. Highline’s experience — along with that of other districts, including those in New York and Los Angeles — suggests just how grueling the pivot to less-punitive discipline can be.

Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield joined the district in 2012 after serving as interim superintendent in Seattle. Having never resorted to suspending a student during seven years of teaching high school in California, Enfield knew she wanted to curtail strict discipline. Her strategic plan, released in 2013 and based on conversations with some 40 staff, parents, civic leaders and students, stated that the district would reduce its out-of-school suspensions to zero, “except when critical for student and staff safety.”

She meanwhile took a handful of steps designed to minimize student conflict and misbehavior. All of the district’s elementary and middle schools, for example, rolled out the Yale-designed program to help students communicate, understand and control their feelings. School staff received at least three hours of training in working with students who’ve experienced trauma, and existing teacher training on students’ emotional needs was expanded. Some high school teachers also received coaching in “restorative justice,” an approach to conflict resolution that emphasizes talking through problems, according to Susanne Jerde, the district’s chief academic officer.

Enfield’s administration also drafted guidelines to help principals determine what behaviors might trigger certain punishments. And Highline hired “re-engagement specialists” to oversee in-school suspended students in study hall-type classrooms.

Progress was swift. Highline’s out-of-school suspensions plunged by 71 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to district administrators. Racial suspension disparities shrank, too. In 2012-13, 10.4 percent of Highline’s black students, 11.1 percent of its special education students and 4.2 percent of its white students were suspended out-of-school at least once. Four years later, the number for black students was 2.9 percent; for special education students, 3.9 percent; and for white students, 1.5 percent.

Highline achieved that progress while boosting academic achievement across the board. The district reports that the number of AP classes taken has vaulted from slightly more than 1,000 in 2012-13 to 1,627 five years later. Graduation rates have jumped 16.5 percent in the last four years, to 78.8 percent. (The district’s strategic plan calls for raising the district graduation rate to 95 percent.) For Hispanic students, who make up 38 percent of the population, the graduation rate rose from 50.1 percent to 75.1 percent, while the rate for black students went from 54.6 percent to 76.3 percent.

But even as achievement rose, problems with the new disciplinary approach began to crop up. Enfield learned of principals skirting the new discipline policies by sending kids home without formally logging suspensions. She told principals she wasn’t interested in masking problems by fudging statistics. “In public education,” she said, “we tend to gild the lily a little bit.”

“Knowing what I know now, I would do it differently. But at some point you just have to dive in.”

The re-engagement specialists had a bumpy rollout, too. The district didn’t provide much guidance at all for how those new hires were expected to run their classrooms for students suspended in-school. One teacher said that his first attempt at repairing relations after a fight between students ended with the argument spreading to both sets of the students’ parents.

“We left a lot of discretion to the building [individual schools and staff], which wasn’t fair,” Enfield acknowledged.

Some teachers say the changes happened too quickly and that classroom discipline has suffered. Teachers began to leave: Administrators note that an average of 12.7 percent of the district’s roughly 1,400 staff has left in each of the past two years, higher than the national average of 8 percent teacher turnover and above Highline’s rate of 9.6 percent from 2012-13 to 2014-15.

Kimmie Marton, a special education teacher at Mount Rainier High School, said students became more disrespectful after the threat of out-of-school suspensions diminished. “Kids will cuss you out, there’s stealing and disobedience,” she said, although she blamed some of the more recent racially tinged taunts she’s overheard as much on the tone set by President Trump as on any school policy.

Although Marton said she supports the goal of reducing suspensions, she believes punishment is meted out inconsistently. “The line keeps moving,” she said, adding that one student was suspended in-school for three days after throwing a chair across the room, an offense she thought deserved an out-of-school suspension.

Indeed, the district reports that in-school suspensions have risen dramatically as the number of students being sent home has shrunk. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of in-school suspensions rose from 479 to 1,358. Enfield said she hopes to eventually reduce punishments across the board, but that, for now, in-school suspensions help the school monitor students’ academic progress and confront the behaviors that led to their outbursts.

Highline isn’t the only district facing backlash over new discipline policies. From 2004 to 2014, Los Angeles (which in 2013 became the first school district to ban suspensions for “defiance”) shaved its suspension rate from 9 percent to 1 percent, but black students were still suspended at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups. Many teachers, and even some administrators, felt the changes were rushed through without proper training — and teachers and union officials complained about classroom discipline issues.

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, shrank its number of suspensions 46 percent from 2011 to 2016. But union officials there have criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s discipline plan, saying the city hasn’t given teachers sufficient training in how to defuse conflicts or provided other necessary support. “When things are rolled out quickly, there are always implementation issues,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.

When New York tried to ban suspensions altogether for its youngest students in 2016, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said schools lacked the training, money and leadership to make the change. “It is easy to ban suspensions. It is much harder to do the real work so suspensions are no longer necessary,” Mulgrew wrote in a letter to schools chancellor Carmen Fariña. The de Blasio administration blinked and decided to significantly curtail rather than ban suspensions for kindergartners to second-graders.

In Highline, Enfield responded to criticism by seeking additional feedback from teachers and principals, ensuring that top officials from the district visit schools throughout the year to see firsthand the changes in progress. She plans to introduce tweaks along the way — by adding more opportunities for kids to work on social and emotional skills, for example. But for the most part, she’s sticking with her approach.

Of the teacher departures, she said, “I’m sure we lost some good teachers because of this change. Sadly, I think that’s inevitable.” But, she added, “I would argue too that we lost some who were not suited to work with our children. And that is not a popular thing to say.”

Highline is striving, however, to give more guidance to the re-engagement specialists who oversee students suspended in-school. It is replicating districtwide the bespoke methods developed by successful re-engagement specialists such as Matthew Burman.

On a recent weekday, five students filed into Burman’s classroom in Pacific Middle School. They’d received a lunch detention for arguing with a teacher. Burman handed the students a short form to fill out, and highlighted the questions: “Why was your teacher concerned? What do you want them to know about the violation?”

“I don’t think you can go too fast if you are trying to remedy an injustice. If you are violating students’ rights, there are some things you can’t go fast enough with.”

In his classroom — a large space with a couch, comfortable chairs and a beaded curtain in one corner — students alternate between 25-minute blocks of schoolwork and coached activities. These include study skills, guided reflections and personality assessments to encourage students to identify their strengths. Burman said he wants students to have “a good experience,” but that “we didn’t want it to be a glorified study hall or ‘Breakfast Club.’ ”

He measures success by how many students return to his classroom. Less than one in four have returned to his room this year, an improvement over a similar time period last year, he said.

At nearby Mount Rainier High School, senior Carlos Diaz is completing a five-day suspension in the classroom of re-engagement specialist Jeffery Blount. Diaz, who has been suspended in-school three times over the last four years, said he “kind of” liked being with Blount all day. “This place really gives you a lot of time to catch up if you’re missing some work,” said Diaz. “Teachers come in and help you one-on-one, which is better than in class.”

Another student, ninth-grader Rhodney Wangugi, was finishing up his first in-school suspension, of two days. He said he missed his friends but liked the distance from students who’d upset him. He felt confident he would avoid further trouble: “I’m trying to change my behavior.”

The possibility of DeVos rescinding federal guidelines has left civil rights advocates worried that more students like Diaz and Wangugi will feel disconnected from school. Dan Losen, director of UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said such a step would “send the wrong message” to districts that continue to mete out harsh punishment. “They won’t get scrutiny.”

Losen said disciplinary reforms could stumble by glossing over student and staff needs. And while he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of Enfield’s approach, he said, in general, speed wasn’t a concern. “I don’t think you can go too fast if you are trying to remedy an injustice. If you are violating students’ rights, there are some things you can’t go fast enough with.”

The Highline district’s school board has meanwhile stood by Enfield’s approach. In September 2016, it renewed her contract until 2019. She has maintained the support of prominent community leaders such as King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who said that the district’s effort to engage students in talking through their problems will result in lower dropout rates and reduce crime. “Susan is a hero to me,” he said.

But many teachers remain skeptical. Sue McCabe, the Highline teachers union president, said that although she believes that Enfield has moved away from a strictly top-down approach to disciplinary reform and is now doing a better job of listening to teachers, she worries that the teacher turnover, which hasn’t slowed significantly, will harm the district long term.

Enfield acknowledged missteps. “Knowing what I know now, I would do it differently,” she said. “But,” she added, “at some point you just have to dive in.”

This article was originally published on