WA high school tries new approach to student discipline -- suspensions drop 85%

THE FIRST TIME THAT principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline. This is how it went down:

A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?” He gets even more specific: “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?”

The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises.” The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: “I shouldn’t have blown up at the teacher.”

Whoa.

And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.

“The kid still got a consequence,” explains Sporleder – but he wasn’t sent home, a place where there wasn’t anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn’t do. He went to ISS -- in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk about anything with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.

Before the words “namby-pamby”, “weenie”, or “not the way they did things in my day” start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:

2009-2010 (Before new approach)

798 suspensions (days students were out of school) 50 expulsions 600 written referrals 2010-2011 (After new approach)

135 suspensions (days students were out of school) 30 expulsions 320 written referrals “It sounds simple,” says Sporleder about the new approach. “Just by asking kids what’s going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away.”


The dark underbelly of school discipline

Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment.

First. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids -- 3,328,750, to be exact. Since the 1970s, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, the suspension rate’s nearly doubled for white kids, to 6%. It’s more than doubled for Hispanics to 7%, and to a stunning 15% for blacks. For Native Americans, it’s almost tripled, from 3% to 8%.

Second. If you think all these suspensions are for weapons and drugs, recalibrate. There’s been a kind of “zero-tolerance creep” since schools adopted “zero-tolerance” policies. Only 5% of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs, said the NEPC report, citing a 2006 study. The other 95% were categorized as “disruptive behavior” and “other”, which includes cell phone use, violation of dress code, being “defiant”, display of affection, and, in at least one case, farting.

Third. These suspensions don’t work for schools. Get rid of the “bad” students, and the “good” students can learn, get high scores, live good lives. That’s the myth. The reality? It’s just the opposite. Says the NEPC report: “…research on the frequent use of school suspension has indicated that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.”

Fourth. They don’t work for the kids who get kicked out. In fact, these “throw-away” kids get shunted off a possible track to college and onto the dead-end spur of juvenile hall and prison.

“Studies show that one suspension triples the likelihood of a juvenile justice contact within that year,” California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the California Legislature last month. “And that one suspension doubles the likelihood of repeating the grade.”

Fifth. All these suspensions have led many communities to create “alternative” schools, where they dump the “bad” kids who can’t make it in regular public school. Lincoln High School was set up as one of those alternative schools.

How Mr. Sporleder stumbled across an epiphany in Spokane

It’s the Spring of 2010, and Jim Sporleder’s mind more or less silently exploded.

This is the guy with 25 years experience as a principal. In Walla Walla, he’s got a rep for really connecting with kids. He preaches “discipline with dignity”.

John Medina – a developmental molecular biologist who’s an improbable cross between an old-time rip-snortin’ preacher and Jon Stewart – just drilled a hole in Sporleder’s brain and dropped this in:

Severe and chronic trauma (such as living with an alcoholic parent, or watching in terror as your mom gets beat up) causes toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kid’s brains. When trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible.

Sporleder was three years into an exhausting stint as principal of the Lincoln Alternative School. He’d asked for the position after reading a report about the troubled school. The report quoted a couple of Lincoln High’s kids: “We're the dumping ground,” one said. “Who cares about us,” another said. It wasn’t a question.

“That report riveted me,” says Sporleder. “I’m a person of faith. I felt called to come over here.”

Gangs controlled the school. It had only 50 students, but they were the toughest in the school system – the kids who’d been kicked out of other schools. Lincoln was their last chance.

“I didn't know if I was going to make it,” recalls Sporleder. “We had some pretty rough kids. It took me quite a while to get on top of that.”

And then, at the behest of Teri Barila, co-founder of the Children’s Resilience Initiative in Walla Walla, he goes to this meeting where this guy who’s part comedian, part evangelist, part scientist (and best-selling author of Brain Rules) more or less tells him that this “discipline with dignity” stuff is, well, useless. Punishing misbehavior just doesn’t work. You’re simply adding trauma to an already traumatized kid.

“He explained it in lay terms,” says Sporleder. “I got it.”

Now, some people who are well into their careers can’t handle a paradigm shift. It’s overwhelming. That’s mostly because it’s just too much trouble to change the way you do…everything.

Spoiler alert: Sporleder isn’t one of those people.

He returned from Spokane to light a fire under his teachers. He felt compelled to figure out a way to do something different to reach his kids, but wasn’t sure exactly how. Teri Barila was in a perfect position to assist.

This is your (damaged) brain on ACEs

Really good ideas that help people solve problems often take such a long time to move from research to implementation that it can cost a community millions of dollars. Twenty years ago, Washington State created a state network -- the Family Policy Council and 42 community public health and safety networks -- to share good information FAST to tackle a big, expensive problem: the high rates of child abuse and youth drug and alcohol abuse in the state. Teri Barila, a former fish biologist, leads the network in Walla Walla, a city of about 30,000 people in southeastern Washington.

About 10 years ago, the council caught wind of two major game-changing discoveries. One was the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). It showed a stunning link between childhood toxic stress and the chronic diseases people developed as adults. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, some breast cancer, and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

(To read the rest of the story, go to Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline.) This story is cross-posted from ACEsTooHigh.com.

Tagged: child trauma, child abuse, ACE Study

Comments

Paul R Getto 5 years, 8 months ago

Excellent ideas here. Teaching/parenting and being principal often overlap in the skills and the emphasis here on talking things out is good. We are too quick to suspend students and send them back to the places that are often causing the problems they display in school. More principals need this kind of vision and commitment to the students.

jstevens 5 years, 8 months ago

Thanks for your comment, Paul. Sporleder and his staff seem to be making a big difference in the lives of many of the school's students.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 8 months ago

You are welcome. Last time I looked, it was our job as educators to make a big difference in their lives. Sometimes we forget that as we "manage" schools and forget our mission. Short of violence and/or weapons possession, there isn't much need to kick kids out of school. In school suspension works just fine nearly all the time if we can't keep them in regular class.

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