Add the Madison Metropolitan School District to the ranks of districts nationwide that are backing away from get-tough discipline codes that push struggling minority students out of the classroom.
MMSD has been reviewing the impact of its code of conduct, examining practices in other school districts, and talking to students, parents and teachers. They are considering developing a code that makes discipline an opportunity for education rather than mere punishment.
“We’re giving it a very hard look,” said Madison School Board member Dean Loumos, a member of an ad-hoc committee driving the project.
No specific proposal has yet been floated, and all school personnel interviewed for this story said there needs to be zero tolerance for some infractions, like possession of weapons and physical attacks on others.
But statistics showing African-American students in the district were eight times more likely to get an out-of-school suspension than white students last year raises questions about whether the discipline code works against efforts to close the achievement gap.
Among big school districts reconsidering such measures is Broward County in Florida, where a zero-tolerance policy led to arrests for such infractions as possessing marijuana or spraying graffiti, the New York Times reports. That district, which had more than 1,000 arrests in the 2011 school year, entered into an agreement last month with community organizations to overhaul its policies to de-emphasize punishment. School districts in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver are undertaking similar reviews of get-tough policies.
“Everybody knows that suspensions don’t always achieve a change in behavior,” says Tim Ritchie, dean of students at Madison Memorial High School. “When we send some kids out of school (on suspension) they don’t have anywhere appropriate to go — their homes can be very chaotic environments.”
Ritchie, a former physical education teacher and athletic director for the district, said he handles a lot of discipline issues in his current role.
“It’s opened my eyes to some of the challenges kids have outside our building,” he says.
He credits Madison police officers on duty at each high school with alerting administrators like him to problems in the neighborhoods that threaten to spill into the school halls.
“Some of the kids are involved in some pretty rough community situations, but a lot of kids check it at the door. I think that’s because we’re a safe place for them,” Ritchie says.
Peggy Coyne, a special education teacher at Black Hawk Middle School, says the fact that school is a safe place might mean it is the place that kids under stress from daunting circumstances finally unload.
Many of the kids who act out in disruptive ways — once she helps them calm down so they can talk — reveal that they are hungry, homeless or coping with serious mental health issues, Coyne says.
“Do we still have dangerous kids? Yes. Are we more adept at handling behavior? Yes,” says Coyne. “I think there is support in middle school for backing off the zero tolerance model.”
Sending kids out of school for disciplinary action thwarts efforts to engage the most difficult-to-engage kids, she says. “We’re working against ourselves.”
Violent incidents are rare at Memorial High School, where district veteran Art Camosy teaches science, but kids do lash out in disruptive ways. That's when Camosy wonders about the benefits of keeping them in the classroom versus making sure everyone else can work and learn.
“Those disruptions infringe on the teaching and learning going on for everybody else — I feel like people are stolen from when that happens. And I cannot say strongly enough how hard it is for a teacher to regain composure and go on when serious disruptions are happening day in and day out,” he said.
“Most people don’t work in a job where part of the daily expectation is that things will be disrupted and you have to find a way to motor on,” Comosy mused. Punishment is not for vengeance, he says. “I’ve got a responsibility to the two dozen other students in my classroom that hour.”
Floyd Rose is president of 100 Black Men of Madison and has consulted with the school district on some issues, but stressed Friday he was offering comment as an individual. He said that keeping students in school while providing safe schools is a complex issue with no easy answer.
“Everybody wants to look at things in black and white, but I think we might want to take a look at income as much as skin color,” Rose said. “Who has unmet needs and who doesn’t might be very impactful.”
School board member Loumos, a former teacher of kids who had dropped out of traditional programs, says that suspending kids marginalizes them and criminalizes their behavior.
But there may not need to be as much change in what Madison schools are actually doing as it initially seems. Many schools already have progressive discipline models. And recently adopted practices such as restorative justice circles, which give people in conflict a place to hear one another out in an attempt to heal the rift, are not now reflected in the code, he said.
“No one’s going to get off the hook for bad behavior,” he said. “But let’s move from a punitive model to an educational model that teaches kids how to stay in line.”