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With 16,000 Suspensions Last Year, Detroit Aims to Reduce Them

The effort comes on heels of a Michigan law that now requires districts to have plans in place to cut back on the number of students being suspended or expelled, or risk losing some state funding.

By Lori Higgins

Last year, the Detroit Public Schools Community District recorded 16,000 suspensions -- many of them involving kids getting kicked out of school for everything from fighting to disorderly conduct to insubordination.

That's thousands of kids booted from schools -- for days, weeks or months -- in an academically struggling district that can't afford to have so many kids missing classes. It's also thousands of kids kicked out with few options to continue their education, but plenty of ways to get into trouble.

One key initiative on the horizon: Out-of-school suspension centers so that suspended students who must be removed from school are able to keep up with their schoolwork with the help of certified teachers. Behavior problems will also be addressed.

"All children, all human beings, make mistakes and we have to create a culture where students learn from their mistakes, yet they know there are clear consequences," Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a recent meeting.

It's part of a bigger effort by the district to reduce suspensions and transform the culture in schools by revamping the student code of conduct so that it's consistent, forces school leaders to use alternatives to suspension, is less focused on the punitive, is more focused on teaching positive behavior and conflict resolution and is aimed at keeping kids in school.

Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate out-of-school suspensions, which may seem like a tall order in a district that had so many suspensions last year. But Vitti said the district must work to keep students in school, rather than "pushing them out."

It's a realization increasingly hitting school leaders across the nation, as years of zero-tolerance policies have raised concerns about the frequency with which students are kicked out of school, especially when the infractions are minor enough that they could be addressed better within the school building.

Michigan law now requires districts to have plans in place to cut back on the number of students being suspended or expelled, or risk losing some state funding. There are also new rules that require, in part, that school officials consider a number of factors, such as a student's age, disciplinary history and the seriousness of the violation, before suspending or expelling a student.

Misha Stallworth, a member of the Detroit Board of Education, sees the revisions to the code as an important step forward for the district -- something she made clear during her first one-on-one conversation with Vitti after he took the reins of the district in May 2017.

"Student codes of conduct are often one of the first places we start to overcriminalize our kids, by being extremely punitive," Stallworth said.

The revision is a step, Stallworth said, toward "disrupting the school to prison pipeline."

A progressive approach

Here are some highlights of the changes:

  • Beginning with the 2018-19 school year, every school in the district will have an in-school suspension program -- something some schools currently don't have. Each school would also have a dean of culture, who would deal with discipline issues, and a guidance counselor.
  • The proposed code ensures what Vitti described as a "progressive discipline approach." That means that before removing a student, school leaders would need to demonstrate that they've tried other methods, such as engaging parents.
  • There is a strong focus on intervention -- through programs that emphasize positive behavior and restorative justice programs that address conflict and misbehavior by having students learn the impact of their actions.
  • There will be a new, more formal process for students or parents to appeal discipline decisions.
  • School leaders and teachers would be trained on the new code of conduct. They would also be trained on the positive behavior and restorative justice practices approaches, as well as classroom management and cultural issues. At the beginning of the school year, students would attend an assembly where the code would be reviewed. A letter would go home to parents that would have to be returned and signed.
Suspended, but still learning

One of the biggest changes that will hit the district won't happen right away, but it will have a significant impact on how the district treats students whose poor choices require them to be removed from school.

Those students would have the option of attending an out-of-school suspension center -- an idea Vitti laid out earlier this year during the first meeting of a code of conduct task force that spent weeks reviewing the proposed changes and offering feedback.

"A certified teacher or a group of certified teachers would work with the student and you would have the wraparound services there as well to start addressing some of the issues that aren't being addressed that led to the negative behavior," he said.

It'll be up to the students to attend, though the district would provide transportation.

"If they don't attend, it'll be documented as an out-of-school suspension," Vitti said. "But at least we're going to try to keep students in the school system and connected to education when possible."

"It's a strategy I've seen work in Jacksonville," Vitti said, referring to Duval County Public Schools, where he was superintendent for five years before taking the Detroit job. A spokeswoman for the district said that "due to funding" the district has discontinued the program.

Initially, the idea in Detroit was for one central out-of-school suspension center. But at that initial meeting of the task force, parent advocate Debby Ector raised a concern about "the violence that can possibly erupt at one location when you bring east side, west side, southwest -- all these people together in one place."

"It's a legitimate concern," Vitti said at the time. "We've talked about that internally."

Last week, he said the district had decided that there would be hubs -- out of school suspension centers in more than one location. They won't open in time for the 2018-19 school year but will be part of future planning for the district

. The centers would be similar to what operates in some other districts nationwide, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. That district has a program called Turning Point Academy, where some students who've been suspended are referred.

The program keeps students on track academically but also addresses their social and emotional growth.

"Really, we want to be able to re-direct them -- their behavior, their academics, attendance, their attitude toward school," said Valoria Burch, the principal. "In order to do that, we need to focus on building good relationships with them."

In Clinton County Schools, also in North Carolina, teachers of suspended students prepare work for them to complete while they're attending an out-of-school suspension center. The students also spend time receiving lessons in character education.

Shirley Williams, administrator of student services for the district, said part of the impetus for creating the program -- which used to be housed at a church -- was to keep kids off the streets.

"We saw some students that were causing problems in the community. They were walking around aimlessly throughout the day, not doing anything productive."

More flexibility in dealing with poor choices

A major difference between the current and proposed code is a change in how punishment would be doled out. Infractions would be broken into four levels, with level one offenses being the least serious and level four being the most serious. Under the old code, the only option listed for students who committed level one infractions -- things like insubordination, disorderly conduct and loitering -- was a potential short-term suspension. That likely meant an exit for students in schools that have no in-school suspension program

. It also led to overly broad interpretations, Stallworth said.

"We all know that insubordination can range from not opening a book when someone asks you to, to not leaving a room when someone asks you to," she said. "That range of things, in terms of why you would put someone out of school, was unacceptable."

Under the proposed code, suspension doesn't come into play for level 1 infractions until the second, third or fourth referral for discipline. The emphasis is on addressing the behavior through parent conferences and through restorative practices. None of the level 1 infractions would result in an out-of-school suspension.

Creating consistency

Vitti said that part of the problem with the current code is that there is inconsistency in how schools deal with students who've made mistakes.

"You could take one infraction at one school and the way in which it was dealt with in School A may have been different than the way it was dealt with in School B," Vitti said. "Not only is that unfair to the individual child and parent, but it also creates legal issues." He said overuse of out-of-school suspensions in the district has led to higher rates of absenteeism. Nearly 57 percent of DPSCD students are considered chronically absent, defined as missing 10 or more days in a school year.

"When a student is out of school for a long period of time, they build a culture and a routine," linked to that out-of-school environment. That, "often leads to situations where they don't come back," Vitti said.

And those who do come back find themselves behind academically, "which is another disincentive for them to continue to work through their challenges."

Training will be key to the overall goal of reducing suspensions, Stallworth said.

"The revisions, paired with training of our staff, as well as of our parents and students, will lead to more positive interactions within school buildings," Stallworth said.

Part of that is understanding the different pathways a student can go down. And the code makes that clear.

"If you're a teacher and you do have someone disruptive in your classroom, you don't feel powerless to mitigate that disruption. But you also understand that if I make this move, then I know what path I'm sending the student down."

(c)2018 the Detroit Free Press

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