Louisiana Educators Say It Loud and Clear: School Discipline Isn't Working

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Student discipline practices have to change because Louisiana's system of alternative education is riddled with problems, officials told a statewide conference this week.

"If we are not addressing the large number of our students that are being put out of our schools either through suspensions or expulsions then we are really burying our heads in the sand," Melissa Stilley, superintendent of the Tangipahoa Parish school system told the group.

About 1,400 educators from both traditional and alternative schools spent the day at the Raising Cane's River Center attending workshops and listening to speakers in the state's first gathering of its kind.

The meeting, which was two years in the making, stems in part from a 2017 report that criticized Louisiana's alternative schools and programs for students with academic or behavior problems or both.

During the opening session, Katie Barras, education consultant for the state Office of Student Opportunities, said about 18,000 students per year are suspended or expelled to alternative sites.

Black students make up 43 percent of the public school population but 78 percent of students suspended or expelled, said Barras, one of the organizers of the conference.

She said 88 percent of students tossed out of traditional schools are being punished for non-violent offenses, including excessive tardiness, uniform violations or willful disobedience.

Barras said those are the types of offenses, using newly-approved intervention methods, better handled in traditional schools.

She said that, once a student is referred to an alternative site, they are five times more likely than rank-and-file students to drop out of school.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in October approved sweeping changes in alternative education, which are being phased in over three years.

Stilley told the group her school district and others statewide still rely on 1980's methods for dealing with 21st century discipline problems.

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She said students are told to comply with the rules or they are sent to an alternative site "that is most likely failing."

"The students that we are suspending are making their way to the prisons because we are not helping them to actually change their behaviors, and they are falling more academically behind every year than their peers," Stilley said.

Workshop topics included how to handle student misbehavior, whether a school's code of conduct uses best practices and how data can help educators deal with troubled students.

The state has 34 alternative education schools and 139 alternative programs.

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