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The Changing Face of School Discipline

For most of my life, and probably for most of yours, school discipline and consequences were pretty cut and dry. Late to class...tardy slip. Talk back to a teacher...detention. Get in a fight...suspension. Drugs or alcohol...maybe an expulsion. In today’s schools, especially in the state of Washington, the face of discipline is changing. It’s no secret that for most people change isn’t easy; mostly because change causes us to have to think differently or get used to something from which we’re not familiar. I’ve seen first hand some of our students, staff and parents struggle with the new discipline changes implemented in our State and District. My intent with this article is to help people better understand the changes, the rationale behind the changes and what we are doing about it in Selah.
   
   Let’s first take a look at some of the legislatively mandated changes in Washington State when it comes to student discipline. House Bill 1541 was passed in 2016 with the intent to close the opportunity gap in learning. Discipline was one area identified in this law because data showed that some groups of students were more likely to be suspended or expelled than others. From this legislation the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in Olympia set out to write new rules for student discipline in Washington. Over the past two school years these rules have been rolled out by the State and implemented in school districts all over Washington. When boiled down, the revised rules have a few foundational components. The revised rules:

  • Look for discipline policies to be fair and equitable across the state. 
  • Ask schools to take a prevention based approach to help teach proper behaviors to students before they become disciplinary problems. 
  • Call for increased parent communication and engagement in the discipline process. 
  •  Include protections to minimize the use of suspensions, expulsions or any other exclusionary discipline that removes students from school or class. This includes limits on the amount of days students can be suspended or expelled and that students should only be excluded as a last resort. 
  • Require districts to continue to provide educational services and access to staff during suspensions or expulsions. 
   While these changes have caused school districts to rethink their discipline policies, there is plenty of rationale that exists behind them.

   The primary motivation for these rule changes was the disproportionate amount of suspensions and expulsions for students in under represented groups across the State. In Selah, these groups included our students in special education, our second language learners and our students of poverty. When looking at our discipline data it was easy to see that we were suspending/expelling some groups of students more than others. So why is suspending or expelling such a bad thing? Research from the Office of Civil rights shows that students are five times more likely to drop out, six times more likely to repeat a grade, and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system even if they are suspended only one time. In addition, our students today are coming to us with more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) leading to struggles with regulating and behaving in schools. Many of these experiences are out of their control, and excluding them from school often exacerbates these struggles. As leaders, knowing what we know about the disproportionate suspending of some groups of students, knowing the research behind suspensions and being understanding of the increasing needs of our students lead us on the journey of making changes to how we think about and respond to discipline.

   In Selah we have embraced these new rules not just because they are required by law. We believe that each student should have access to high levels of learning in a safe environment every day. In fact, we were ahead of the curve when it came to using preventative approaches with the adoption of our PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports) model a few years ago known as Viking PRIDE. However, we’ve also seen challenges and frustrations as we’ve implemented these discipline changes. Some of the frustration comes from almost a built in conflict between the idea of a safe learning environment for all and not excluding kids who exhibit behaviors that make the learning environment difficult. We’ve heard frustrations from staff, students and parents alike about this conflict. Obviously, severe behaviors like the use of weapons or extreme acts of violence allow schools to exclude students for safety reasons. However, beyond those extreme cases schools need to think outside the box when it comes to managing the behaviors of some of our students.
  We are fortunate in Selah to have outstanding kids. Over 80% of our students don’t have any real issues with discipline. Like other districts, we have seen a rise in the severity of behaviors by the small amount of students who do struggle with controlling behavior. Implementing PBIS (Viking PRIDE), focusing on social-emotional skills and using character based programs are some of the ways we have tried to think differently about discipline in Selah and support the changing needs of our kids. However, we know these changes will not happen overnight and will require a collaborative effort from all if they are to truly make a long-term impact.

 If you have questions about the new laws you can access information at this website: http://www.k12.wa.us/studentdiscipline/Rules/pubdocs/Student-Discipline-Rules-An-Introduction.pdf. Or, if you have questions about school discipline policies in Selah you can reach out to a school administrator at any time.

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