New approach leads to drop in CMS suspensions

In-school suspensions are one of the alternatives Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is using to reduce out-of-school suspensions. With in-school suspensions,students are removed from traditional classrooms and complete their work under the supervision of a designated teacher.
In-school suspensions are one of the alternatives Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is using to reduce out-of-school suspensions. With in-school suspensions,students are removed from traditional classrooms and complete their work under the supervision of a designated teacher. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

The number of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students who have been suspended is down 14 percent this year, a reflection of the district’s new emphasis on finding alternatives to sending children home to discipline them.

The goal is to keep students in the classroom and learning, leaning on numerous studies that show fewer out-of-school suspensions leads to more students graduating on time and better academic achievement.

Some teachers, however, worry that their schools don’t have the staff to properly address their students’ behavioral issues – and that methods to keep students in the classroom aren’t fair to other children.

New data provided by CMS covering the school year through May 5 shows the district has already made significant strides toward reducing out-of-school suspensions. But they also reveal the troubling persistence of racial disparities in discipline.

▪ About 9,700 students were suspended through May 5 this year, compared with 11,250 through the same date in the 2013-14 year. Fewer students were suspended in nearly every demographic group. Suspensions among American Indian students were roughly flat.

▪ Suspensions for subjective categories such as “aggressive behavior” and “insubordination” also fell significantly, down 14 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

▪ Black students, already disproportionately suspended, made up an even larger percentage of students sent home this year. Black students made up 76 percent of suspensions, compared with 74 percent the year before. Still, fewer black students overall were suspended – 7,373 compared with 8,326 last year.

Bringing a weapon to school carries a mandatory suspension. Nearly everything else is discretionary, said Lisa Barnes, executive director of student discipline and behavior support.

To achieve fewer suspensions, CMS principals are pushing more kids toward in-school suspension, Saturday sessions, courses on violence prevention and community service.

The district is also focusing on trying to figure out the root causes of a student’s misbehavior, whether it’s something like a problem at home or frustration with difficulty reading.

“The model is shifting to a very, very different mindset around what do we do with children who are struggling, not just academically but in terms of behavior,” said Marion Bish, executive director of student services.

“If you were a misbehaving student, you were just sent home and nobody worried about it. Today, we’ve come to a point over the last 10 years where we’ve really focused on how do we intervene for kids who are struggling.”

The approach takes significantly more staff and money, a touchy subject while budgets remain tight and schools overcrowded. Last year, CMS requested $3.7 million from Mecklenburg County to hire 40 more school psychologists and counselors. This year, the district asked for $2.8 million for another 40. County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposed budget recommends providing half that number.

But the initiative has gained the support of a broad swath of Mecklenburg County’s agencies that deal with children, including the juvenile justice system and nonprofit advocates.

“It’s not as if the message is no discipline. The message is, ‘OK, if there’s discipline, then what are we going to do in addition to the discipline to think about solving our problems?’” Superintendent Ann Clark said.

“Really, it’s taking that extra time and that extra step and being a little more intentional about personalizing that discipline.”

Move to zero-tolerance

CMS joins school districts across the country in trying to tackle the suspension issue.

As zero-tolerance policies became more popular in the 1990s, suspensions skyrocketed across the country, especially among black students, said Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University.

Nationally, the likelihood a student would be suspended reached 17 percent by high school, while nearly 1 in 4 black students in secondary school were suspended in the 2009-10 school year, according to researchers at UCLA.

CMS followed the national trend. That same year, black students in CMS were more than five times as likely to be suspended than their white peers, according to district data. Hispanic students were nearly three times as likely.

“We’ve learned increasingly over the last 10 years that removing kids from schools for disciplinary purposes doesn’t solve problems,” Skiba said. “It’s a short-term fix at best.”

Schools that have higher suspension rates also tend to have lower graduation rates and test scores – even when controlled for variables like income level and race.

In early 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines on alternatives to suspension. The department’s Office of Civil Rights also put school districts on notice that they could face an investigation if complaints arose about discriminatory patterns in disciplining students.

Since then, districts in states such as New York, Maryland, California, Ohio, Colorado and Texas have moved quickly to revise their policies on suspension and expulsion. Codes of conduct have been rewritten to de-emphasize punishment and focus on building a positive environment.

Other districts have implemented restorative justice programs, where mediation among students and teachers in a school aims to get students talking about why they misbehaved.

“We know that suspension has a negative effect, and there’s some promising research that the alternatives are having a positive effect,” Skiba said. “These programs are new enough so that data is still emerging.”

How they’re doing it

One of the simplest ways CMS is using to reduce suspensions is requiring administrators to document the steps they’ve taken to work with a student before sending him or her home. In most cases, there will be a progressive series of interventions, from peer mediation to connecting with the school nurse, for example, Barnes said.

The Mecklenburg County juvenile justice system has also been a part of the initiative. A fight in school can lead to arrest and a public affray charge. Cursing at a teacher could result in a disorderly conduct charge.

Judges who handle these cases are now being trained to take a second look before handing down a sentence.

Through a partnership with Mecklenburg County, CMS has also started offering mental health services inside schools. About half of the districts’ campuses, 66 schools, have therapists or other staff on hand part time to work with students on emotional and behavioral issues.

There’s also been a more concerted effort to get everyone at a school who’s involved with a particular child around a table to decide on the best course of action, said Bish, the executive director of student services.

“A teacher isn’t sitting out there by herself trying to figure this out,” Bish said.

The process hasn’t been perfected. Some teachers have said they’ve had students in their class be suspended without being aware. Suspensions are generally determined by principals and community superintendents.

Meg Judy, a second-grade teacher at Albemarle Road Elementary, said she had a student who was suspended after hitting another student on the school bus. She found out only later that he had been suspended, and said it jaded him. She said if she could have sat down with the family, a better solution could have been worked out.

“I have noticed a big difference in him. He’ll be like, ‘I don’t care, I’ve been suspended,’” Judy said. “That’s something I’ve never heard before.”

Pressures for teachers

Some teachers have told the Observer that the new emphasis has put more pressure on them. They’ve been asked to spend more time repeatedly contacting parents for such issues as inappropriate cellphone use. Fears have also arisen that students will be led to believe there aren’t consequences for bad behavior.

Other teachers have said interventions they’re expected to take – including moving students to new seats or sending them to another classroom – can be extremely disruptive for children trying to learn.

Clark, the superintendent, said she doesn’t believe the district has taken away from teachers a tool for managing their classrooms. She said teachers really aren’t asked to do anything differently when a student is acting up.

“Teachers are still referring students out of the classroom,” Clark said. “What is different is what we do when they’re out of the classroom.”

Teachers groups nationally have also cautioned that reducing suspensions is easy to mandate, but hard to carry out. As tight budgets and increasing enrollment have strained staffing, it can be close to impossible for a teacher to find the time needed to truly address the root causes of the problem, said Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

“I think these approaches make sense, but they also have to be supported and funded so schools have the resources and infrastructure to make it possible,” he said.

Schools such as Albemarle Road Elementary, with more than 1,300 students, may have one psychologist who works there part of the week. Even with two full-time counselors, the support staff is stretched thin.

“Everyone is definitely overworked, and we could do with getting more help in that regard,” Judy said.

Cassandra Mack, a parent of a first-grade student at Steele Creek Elementary, said she hopes CMS comes up with a blueprint for dealing with behavior issues like talking back. Her daughter, Zanobia, has a tendency to speak her mind, she said. For now, that’s only resulting in notes and phone calls home. Mack said she’d like to see more restorative justice practices in CMS. She’s become a part of ONE Charlotte, a community group that has lobbied the district for a commitment to restorative justice.

“As she goes through the school system, is it going to continue like this?” Mack said. “Right now they’re just getting the color coding, but the further she goes, it’s then going to turn into being sent to the principal’s office or out of school suspension because they’re not going to tolerate it.”

Dunn: 704-358-5235;

Twitter: @andrew_dunn

Alternatives to suspension in CMS

▪ Parent contact. This includes phone calls and letters.

▪ Counseling. CMS recently placed guidance counselors in every elementary school to help accomplish this.

▪ Peer mediation. Student leaders are selected to hash out solutions among their peers. This tends to be more common in middle schools.

▪ Social restriction. This could involve keeping a student from an event such as a football game.

▪ After-school detention or Saturday school. Several schools also hold “Saturday Academy” for students behind on their schoolwork.

▪ Behavior contract. These require students to sign agreements describing what they did wrong and how to correct it.

▪ In-school suspension. Students are removed from traditional classrooms and complete their work under the supervision of a designated teacher.

▪ Community service. Students and parents have to go through an orientation before completing a service assignment.

▪ Referral to intervention/alternative program. These include “Violence is Preventable” and “Sexual Harassment Is Preventable” courses.

▪ Alternative classroom assignment. Students can be “bounced” to a new classroom and assigned a task.

▪ Removal from extracurricular activities. Students can be barred from sports or clubs.

Source: CMS Code of Conduct