Classrooms Not Courtrooms: School leaders meet to rethink discipline

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — School leaders from across the state met at the Greater Richmond Convention Center Monday for the “Classrooms Not Courtrooms: School Discipline and the Achievement Gap Institute.”

The event was geared toward school superintendents, principals and other administrators.

It was a chance for people from local school divisions to exchange ideas and talk about best practices.

“I think for many years we all used the traditional approach of, if a student misbehaved, we put them out of school,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples. “As we started looking at the data, what we discovered is, once you put them out of school, their behavior didn’t always change.”

In 2015, a report from the Center for Public Integrity showed Virginia leading the nation in the number of students referred to law enforcement.

“It was a wakeup call,” said Kim Adkins, a member of the Virginia Board of Education. “That is not a label that the commonwealth wants to have nationwide.”

In 2016, a report from the Legal Aid Justice Center noted Virginia schools are over-issuing suspensions. It found African-American students and students with disabilities were being suspended at a disproportionate rate.

“I think people at this conference are embracing the idea of changing practice in a way that doesn’t allow students to misbehave but actually changes their behavior in a positive way,” said Staples.

Governor Terry McAuliffe spoke at the conference. He encouraged school leaders to examine discipline.

“You refer someone to law enforcement at a very young age, you could really affect that individual’s career,” he said. “Far too many of our students are spending time outside the classroom unfortunately because of disciplinary action.”

But some of the numbers are going down.

In the last six years, short-term suspensions have decreased by 19 percent, long-term suspensions are down 17-percent and expulsions have dropped 62-percent overall, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Not all of the recent data is as promising.

Suspensions are beginning to trend up again and disproportionality remains.

The recent data shows African-American students make up 24 percent of the population but 54 percent of suspensions. Disabled students account for 12 percent of the school population but total 25 percent of all suspensions.

“These numbers are still entirely too high,” said McAuliffe. “This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated here in the commonwealth of Virginia. There is no room in our commonwealth for excessive or discriminatory discipline for our students.”

Last month. McAuliffe signed legislation directing the Board of Education to find alternatives to school suspensions.

Staples said potential alternatives could be a number of things.

“Sometimes it’s finding a way to keep a student in school in a different setting. Sometimes it’s changing the setting they’re in, helping them better understand how to respond to confrontation, to respond to teachers. It could literally be something as simple as having a timeout place where a student can get away, think about their behavior, have someone counsel with them a bit and then return with a new frame of mind,” he said.

Staples said it’s a shared responsibility between schools, parents and the community as a whole.

“Helping them reshape their behaviors in a positive way means they’re more likely to be productive and will likely do better in school, hopefully becoming productive citizens.”

To learn more about the Classrooms Not Courtrooms initiative, click here.