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In an unprecedented move, the Obama administration this week issued the first federal legal guidance on classroom discipline. The recommendations aim to end the disparities in how students of different races are punished for breaking school rules. They follow years of contention over “zero-tolerance” policies that many parents and administrators say are unnecessarily harsh. Kojo looks at how the new guidelines could impact classrooms and school security.
- Daryl Williams Chief of Student Services, Prince George's County Public Schools
- Maurice "Mo" Canady Executive Director, National Association of School Resource Officers
- Martina Hone Founder, The Coalition of The Silence; former member of the Fairfax County School Board
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, what to do about the growing deer population in Rock Creek Park. But, first, from the classroom to the courtroom, school discipline has been a lightning-rod issue, but one that has been mainly left to local districts to iron out. But, for the first time, the federal government is weighing in on this emotional issue by providing legal guidance on how to handle kids who break school rules.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe goal? To end the disparities on how students of different races are punished. The guidelines issued yesterday represent a milestone in discipline reform effort and may mark the beginning of the end of zero-tolerance rules that have been so hotly debated in our region and beyond. But has the government overreached, or has it gone -- not gone far enough? Are we seeing a sea change on how kids are disciplined? And how can school officials teach right from wrong, if they strive to mete out praise and punishment that's race- and color-blind.?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to talk about this is Martine Hone. Tina Hone is a former member of the Fairfax County School Board and founder of The Coalition of The Silence, which is a community-based organization in Fairfax County that works to end discipline and achievement gaps in schools. Tina Hone, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
MS. MARTINA HONEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Daryl Williams, Chief of Student Services for Prince George's County Public Schools. Daryl Williams, thank you for joining us.
MR. DARYL WILLIAMSMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Mo Canady is executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Mo Canady joins us by phone from Hoover, Alabama. Thank you for joining us.
MR. MAURICE "MO" CANADYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850. You can send us email to email@example.com, send us a tweet at kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Tina, as a former member of the Fairfax County School Board, discipline has been a huge issue in your school system. And it's even made national headlines. What did yesterday's announcement of these federal discipline guidelines say to you about this problem?
HONEIt said to me that the work that we have been doing for so long in Fairfax County was not for naught. We had to face the dual tragedy of two very high profile suicides of students who were lost to zero-tolerance reform. And we worked very hard to break the, sort of, the back of zero-tolerance reform and remind our school system that these are children. And we should be treating them as such and allowing them the opportunity to be children, including making mistakes, and using discipline in the way that it's meant, which is to guide.
HONEAnd so the thing that I'm happy to report is with the new superintendent and some of the work done before the new superintendent arrived is there has been progress made in Fairfax County. But there's still a long way to go. Fairfax County can continue to lead the nation. And I think that with the federal government stepping in, the spotlight that's on this now cannot be ignored.
NNAMDIAs an indication that there's still a long way to go, just before we began this broadcast, you were telling me a story about an elementary school student. Would you repeat that story?
HONEOh, yes, because I think it's an important story. He's a young child, sixth grader, the only African American in a classroom. He was wiggling. He's a six-year-old boy. And, in the course of wiggling, his shoe fell off, flew through the air and hit a young girl near him. Instead of looking at that opportunity as, it's a child who's wiggling and we need to teach him not to wiggle, the principal tried to suspend the child. What really was so sad about the story is that, when it happened, the father brought his son home and put 30 hangers on the floor -- 29 light-colored hangers and one dark hanger.
HONEAnd he asked his son, which hanger do you see? And the son, of course, pointed to the dark hanger. That in 2012, 2013, and African-American parent has to have that conversation with his child -- and this was not a poor child. This was a child who came, who had two educated, professional parents. And they had to have this conversation with their son, it actually brought me to tears.
NNAMDIDaryl Williams, as the person who helps craft rules and regulations for about 125,000 students, I'd like to hear your take on yesterday's announcement. How will it impact your county schools in Prince George's County, Maryland?
WILLIAMSThank you for having us. I believe that yesterday's announcement really just emphasized the fact that we, in Prince George's County Public Schools, as well as every district in the State of Maryland, is really on course for looking at school safety, school policy, school rules and trying to create an environment for learning. Our State of Maryland has really been at the forefront of leading our districts in reestablishing and redefining their student codes of conduct.
WILLIAMSAnd so we have put together a new draft code of student conduct that addresses a way to not only deal with infractions, but deal with them appropriately, and also to look at ways of keeping students in schools and giving them more alternatives around the types of behaviors that are against school rules, so that we're not removing students away from the educational responsibilities that we have for them, but we're also teaching them about appropriate behaviors and also building safe and orderly environments in our buildings.
NNAMDIMo Canady is head of the country's association representing school resource officers. What is your reaction to these new guidelines? Have school discipline policies been vague or varied enough that guidance from, well, on high -- the federal government -- could be helpful?
CANADYWell, actually, we were pleased with what came out on the guidelines in terms of law enforcement officers and discipline. It actually reinforces what our association has been teaching police officers for 24 years; and that is that discipline belongs in the hands of the school district -- of the school administrators, and not in the hands of law enforcement. We've always been firm with attendees of our training that that's the way it should be. Certainly, we also are interested in the importance of making sure that the issue of arrest and the issue of school discipline are two very separate events.
CANADYIn other words, we want to be at a point with our members -- and I think most of our members are at this point -- that when they're dealing with an issue in school, they're working hard to deescalate the situation as opposed to escalating it to making it necessary for arrest. So we do want to keep those school discipline matters and arrest as two very separate situations.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Are zero-tolerance policies too harsh or are they necessary in your opinion, given security concerns at schools? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tina, Attorney General Eric Holder said these guidelines are meant to address the well documented disparities we're seeing and how students of different races are punished. Do you think we're beginning to see the end or that we're seeing the beginning of the end of zero-tolerance policies that many parents said are unnecessarily punitive?
HONEI do think we're seeing the beginning of the end of zero-tolerance policies. I think they're out of the shadows now. And I think the myth that zero-tolerance somehow makes a school more secure has been busted. If you really want to make a school more safe and secure, it takes much harder work than sort of simple-minded zero tolerance. It's restorative justice. Getting in there, helping youngsters understand what they've done and what they need to do to restore faith in the community that they need to work in, which is the school.
HONEAnd so I believe that there's a lot of progress being made. And I pray that this is the end of zero tolerance.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is James in Washington D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood afternoon, James.
JAMESSo I'd like to say, first, that I'm a D.C. public school teacher. I'm on my lunch break right now, sitting in my car listening to your program. I want to say that so far I have agreed totally with everything I've heard your guests say, so I'm not calling in with an argument. I'm just calling in to chime in with two comments from two wise women. The first one is the former principal at my school.
JAMESAnd that was, she told us one time, when we were meeting before the school year started, try and treat every child who comes into the school the same way you would want your biological children to be treated. And I'd also like to quote my mother, a retired clinical psychologist, who says that when a child is acting its worst -- his or her worst, is when that child is upset about something. So I don't really like the zero-tolerance idea. I mean I think we do need a very high degree of discipline in our classrooms.
JAMESBut I think there should be a big jump between the child being put out of the classroom and the child being put out of the school. We need to look to Finland, especially, where they have all the social services right in the school building. So, if there's a child who's having an emotional problem, that child's services are available just down the hallway. And those are the comments that I'd like to chime in with.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, James. I would advocate that every other teacher in D.C.'s public school system spends their lunch hours like you do, listening to this broadcast. Thank you very much for your call. Care to comment on what James just said, Tina?
HONEWell, I'm so pleased that a teacher called in because the teachers are on the frontline and their perspective is incredibly important. We put a lot of pressure on teachers right now with SOLs and many other things. And so, for some teachers, there is this terror that -- oh, and now I have to be a psychologist, which most great teachers are, frankly. I used to teach. But the idea of having wraparound services in a school building, a place where a child who clearly needs an intervention has a place to go, is critically important.
HONEBut it costs money and it takes time and the community has to be willing to invest in it.
NNAMDIMo Canady, among the recommendations yesterday was one that encouraged schools to draw clear distinctions about the responsibility of school security officers. Do you find that school resource officers who are generally employees of local police departments often do not have clear mandates about how involved they should be in dealing out discipline?
CANADYWell, you know, it's interesting you ask that. And, of course, I think it's important for everyone to understand what a school resource officer is. It, technically, is a sworn law-enforcement officer who is properly selected and properly trained to work in a school environment. And I think that most of our members, certainly, who have been through our training, understand what their role is in the schools. The problem we run into sometimes is, even with our well trained, well selected folks, is that sometimes the school administrators are not properly trained in how to utilize their SRO program.
CANADYThat's one of the gaps that we're trying to close, that we believe would help tremendously. But training is at the core of all of this, in terms of understanding how a program should actually function.
NNAMDIMo, how has the job of the school resource officer changed, especially following the Newtown shootings in Connecticut?
CANADYWell, you know, that's an interesting question. Certainly our role as an association has changed a good bit over the last year. And we've been responding to and dealing with a lot of matters. But as far as the individual SRO, I honestly don't know that it's changed that much. Certainly preparedness is more, you know, on the minds of folks after something like this tragedy occurs. But we're still, as SROs, most of us are never going to deal with a shooting situation like that.
CANADYBut we are going to deal with the day-to-day issues of helping with anti-bullying strategies, with dealing with trespassers on the campus, and dealing with mentoring students or working to help teachers in a classroom setting to provide some type of education curriculum in the classroom.
NNAMDITina, you mentioned earlier restorative justice. It's something that's been increasingly in use in school districts nationwide that can get kids involved in their own discipline. Can you explain what it is and how effective it's been in our area?
HONESure. I'll do my best to explain it. Essentially restorative justice would allow the student's peers, other members of the community, the school community, teachers, parents, administrators, you come together and you discuss, for one of a better word, with the student, this is what you did and this is the impact that it's had on the community. What are you going to do to make it right? It's not necessarily a way out of discipline in some cases. There are still disciplinary infractions meted out.
HONEBut there is very much the intention of not excluding the child from the community but giving the child the path back to the community. And that's so important because one of the things that gets forgotten and it's at the core of the Coalition of the Silence is the link between discipline and academic achievement. When a student is out of school they lose ground. They lose the connection to the school community. It becomes less relevant.
HONEThere is a reason why the achievement gap and the discipline gaps parallel each other. And so we want to be sure that a child prefers to be in school. One of my wise friends said to me, remember a kid would rather be a bad kid than a dumb kid. And when you're left out of school and you come back and you're behind, that just feeds into the negative behavior and the pathway to even bigger infractions.
NNAMDIDaryl Williams, what's your take on restorative justice? Has it proven to be an effective alternative to suspensions and expulsions?
WILLIAMSWe’re finding here in Prince Georges County schools that it is very viable. We have begun to really partner with a variety of groups, agencies and organizations to help bring these wraparound services, not only to the schoolhouse but also to reach out to communities and the families. And so restorative justice, the extended part of it in the work that we're doing is to also look at what may be occurring at home and within communities and how do we take those resources and wrap them around the entire community.
WILLIAMSAnd so we're looking at ways to bring community resources into our buildings, but also to take school and education resources into communities, community centers, churches, organizational groups. And working together as a total community to look at the needs of students, to look at the behaviors and the responses to behaviors and how we keep kids in school so that they get the most out of their educational experience, but also that they understand what the appropriate conduct should be in school.
NNAMDIHere's Jacquelyn in Alexandria, Va. Jacquelyn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACQUELYNHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. My child is a special-needs child in the city of Alexandria. And one of the very, very frustrating things that I've encountered is a lack of alternative educational facilities. Our school district has no facility for children who are suspended for periods of ten days or more. And so for elementary-age children if you are suspended, it's essentially up to the parent to stay home with that child. And in a case where that parent is a single parent, that becomes financially very, very challenging.
JACQUELYNAnd I just want to reiterate what some of your speakers have said about what happens in terms of the exclusion from the community, losing ground academically and losing the connection to the school community. Because sending children home without addressing the underlying problem or challenge does nothing to really curb the behavior to help the child in the long run.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that Mo Canady?
CANADYWell, I think that when we're talking about alternative placement for students in that category, that's something that's really outside the realm of law enforcement to deal with. But it would be my wish, my desire that every school would have that capability to be able to house a student in that situation so that they're not suspended out of school so that they're -- again we're not putting a burden again on the single parent to have to deal with that. That would be quite a financial burden.
HONEI appreciate Jacquelyn's call. The situation that Jacquelyn described is not just for children with special needs but for children who frankly have committed such serious infractions that there is a good reason for them to not be in a regular classroom. But that does not mean that they don't -- they should not be getting viable educational options.
HONEOne of the last things that I did when I was on the school board was attempt to develop a brick-and-mortar solution so that those children that for whatever reason could not go back to the classroom immediately, they were still kept on track academically, even if they had fallen off track in terms of discipline. Unfortunately that was not funded but we're going to continue to work on it.
NNAMDISpeaking of funding -- and this is my last question -- Daryl Williams, we've seen the federal government dipping its arms into education reform. Now it's doing the same with how schools are being run. Do you see the federal government backing up these recommendations with resources, funding?
WILLIAMSI see the federal role as being a partner with education -- with local and state education. Not necessarily dictating to us how we run schools but definitely providing whatever resources it can to support what we do at the school and the district level. Again, in Prince Georges County, we're not waiting for the federal government to give us a grant or special funding.
WILLIAMSWe're taking a proactive approach. We've revised our student code of conduct to be more responsive to the needs of students, to the needs of families. We've got a progressive discipline approach. We look at the impact it has on families in terms of students being out of school and making sure that students are in school as long as possible. We welcome the support from the federal government as a partner and -- but we're going to move ahead and really support the needs of our students and our families through the work that we're doing to revise our codes of conduct.
NNAMDIDaryl Williams is chief of student services for Prince Georges County Public Schools. Mo Canady is executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. And Martina Hone is a former member of the Fairfax County School Board. She's also founder of the Coalition of the Silence. That organization works in Fairfax County to end discipline and achievement gaps in schools. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be talking about the excess of deer in Rock Creek Park and what should be done about them. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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