Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

A District That Ditched In-School Suspensions

By Corey Mitchell — October 17, 2017 9 min read
Charles Williams, a youth support counselor at the Ginn Academy in Cleveland, helps Jaivyon Harris, 14, one-on-one in the school’s hallway.
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In the 17 years that Brenda Duke worked as an elementary school secretary, the principal’s office was a revolving door for some students.

Soon after returning to school from a suspension, they’d be back in the office on the verge of getting sent home for something else: snoozing at their desks, mouthing off at teachers, or strolling into class just moments after the bell rang.

The churn of students filing in and out of the office angered Duke. From her vantage point, the punishment often wasn’t fitting for children who probably needed a shoulder to lean on, not a kick in the pants.

“A majority of those kids were repeat offenders because their needs weren’t met, they didn’t get a chance to explain what happened, and they weren’t given any tools to change the behavior,” she said.

Determined to do something about it, Duke found an unused desk to sit alongside her own. She’d round up the class assignments for the students, keep an eye on them while they worked, and plead with principals to give them another chance.

Unbeknownst to Duke, her early efforts were a precursor to a citywide effort to curb student-discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions—and keep more children in class, connected to what they are learning, and on the path to graduation.

No longer a secretary, Duke is now in her 12th year at Clark PreK-8 School on Cleveland’s east side, where she works as planning-center instruction aide.

In that role, she is a counselor and confidante for the 600 children at the school, a person who can pull them out of class for a chat that could keep them in school.

The district began opening the planning centers after determining that in-school suspensions were harming students more than they helped.

Building Trust

Located in every district school, the centers represent a fundamental shift in the approach to student discipline: Students go from having little, or no, say in how they’re disciplined to being empowered to assess and correct their own behavior, district CEO Eric Gordon said.

Developed in tandem by a team of district administrators and leaders in the city’s teachers’ union, they offer students an opportunity to cool down, learn coping strategies, and get back in the classroom as soon as possible.

“You have to trust that when kids are empowered to make better decisions, they will,” Gordon said.

Educators at Cleveland’s Ginn Academy, a 430-student all-boys high school, are trying to develop that trust and rapport Gordon talks about.

Principal Nicholas Petty, along with planning-center instructional aide Eric Cek, and a team of more than a dozen youth-support staff have taken students that some schools gave up on and given them a place that sets high standards for effort and expectations.

Eric Cek, a planning center instructional aide, talks with students at Ginn Academy, where in-school suspensions were replaced with hands-on supports for students who may be struggling with behavior.

The school’s 2017 class had a 98 percent graduation rate, about 30 percentage points higher than the districtwide average.

The planning center helps students “focus on life,” said junior Brandon McCann. As he and other students discuss their approach to managing behavior, the words “love” and “trust” are used frequently.

“Respect is the foundation,” he said. “To get respect, you have to earn it.”

Bridging ‘Gaps’ of Understanding

Charles Williams, one of the longest-tenured youth-support workers, fills many roles at the school.

If Williams’ students struggled with suspensions in the past, he teaches them how to get back in class and stay there. If they’re misbehaving to mask their struggles with reading or some other academic matter, he finds them help for that, too.

“I bridge gaps of understanding. You have to reach before you teach,” said Williams, a seven-year employee.

When students do something that merits more severe discipline than a talking to or planning-center visit, Williams sits in on meetings with the principal or dean of students to advocate for the students.

“He’s like their attorney,” joked Petty, the principal.

But in-school suspensions and detentions, often a first option to deal with behavioral issues in the past, are now a last resort at Ginn Academy and elsewhere in the Cleveland school system.

The number of out-of-school suspensions in the city’s school system has dropped by 50 percent over the past five years, dropping to 373 districtwide for last school year.

Cleveland abandoned in-school suspensions nearly a decade after concluding that the practice provided a gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline. Students often saw the discipline—spending days in an isolated classroom with almost no feedback or support from staff—as a sentence.

“They went up there, did their time, and they left. We weren’t listening to the students,” said Denine Goolsby, the executive director of the Cleveland district’s Humanware program, the unusually named initiative to provide social and emotional support for students.

To supplement the hardware—such as surveillance cameras and metal detectors—that the district uses to keep students safe, its Humanware team addresses the softer elements of school safety, to head off potential incidents before they occur.

The district developed the program in October 2007, after a 14-year-old student—angry about being suspended after a fight—returned to his high school and shot and injured two students and two teachers before killing himself.

Now, the planning centers are often the last stop before a student is sent home but also the first stop upon return. The planning centers provide an opportunity for staff members to review what happened and how they can help students prevent it from happening again.

If the goal is to change student behavior, research shows that repeated out-of-school suspensions aren’t an effective tool and in-school suspensions aren’t much better, said Pamela Fenning, a school psychologist and a professor of school psychology at Loyola University School of Education in Chicago.

Fenning co-founded the Illinois-based Transforming School Discipline Collaborative, a team of lawyers, school psychologists, policy advocates, and community partners dedicated to reducing the high numbers of school days that students lose as a result of suspensions and expulsions.

While school systems from California to Florida have revamped their student-discipline policies in recent years, with a focus on keeping students in school, theory and reality don’t always match up. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that about 6 percent of the K-12 student population was suspended at least once during the 2013-14 school year, the last for which the data are available.

That number is three or four times higher in some urban districts, including Cleveland, where the number of out-of-school suspensions has remained steady despite the district’s success in reducing in-school suspensions.

Clark and Ginn are bright spots in a district still struggling to find answers for student discipline problems. Cleveland school administrators handed down 10,900 out-of-school suspensions during the 2016-17 school year, state data show. That’s roughly the same total from five years ago.

“When you do have to put a child out of school, the questions are ‘How long and for what purpose?’” said Gordon, the district CEO.

Changing Perspectives

Getting in trouble at school is something that Jason Okonofua, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, can relate to. As a youth in Memphis, Tenn., he earned suspensions and more than one of his teachers considered him a troublemaker.

A bright student, Okonofua managed to eventually earn degrees at Northwestern and Stanford universities. But his brothers, who endured the same struggles, weren’t as fortunate.

They didn’t graduate from high school and became part of the school-to-prison pipeline that educators warn of.

“Disciplinary action ... can really shape the ultimate outcomes that students face. I got lucky,” Okonofua said.

Now, as a researcher, Okonofua and colleagues hope to help more students avoid that fate by encouraging teachers to combine discipline with empathy, especially when it comes to their interactions with African-American students like himself.

An intervention program they developed—which earned praise from the federal Education Department during the Obama presidency—cut suspension rates in half in districts where the effort was piloted.

“A part of this work is reminding teachers that, when students misbehave,” Okonfua said, “that’s an opportunity to do what they came in the profession to do in the first place.”

Conditions for Learning

When in-school or out-of-school suspensions are used without further intervention, they tend to exacerbate problem behaviors and also may lead to academic trouble.

When districts do ditch those methods totally, buy-in from teachers and other staff is crucial, because teachers are forced to surrender some control over their classrooms, said Loyola University’s Fenning.

“It’s a more philosophical mindset shift than it is something that we can clearly dictate or mandate,” she said.

The expectations for improvement aren’t just for Cleveland students.

The district has also set up a system in which students hold educators accountable.

At least twice a year, students rate their schools with surveys designed to gather input on classroom culture and school safety, key components of the district’s social and emotional learning efforts.

Students are often “brutally honest,” said Petty, the Ginn Academy principal.

When Duke and Principal Amanda Rodriguez arrived at Clark, the school was in “academic emergency,” the bottom rung of the the state’s accountability ratings system. Nearly all the students at the school live in poverty, and roughly 20 percent are English-language learners.

While the school remains under state scrutiny a dozen years later, its latest state report card is filled with more A’s and B’s than not.

“If you don’t teach the whole child, you’re not going to get the results in the end,” Rodriguez said.

Duke keeps a cot in her classroom-sized office for students who didn’t get enough sleep the night before and extra clothes for those who come to school with soiled or tattered uniforms.

She keeps detailed files on every student she comes into contact with, including notes on their home lives and pressure points—things that set them off.

She estimates that upwards of 80 percent of the problems that spark in-school flare-ups start off campus, either at home or on social media. Sending students away from the structure and safety that school can provide won’t solve those problems, she said.

Students at the school agree.

Breyonna Taylor, an 8th grade student at Clark, was once a frequent visitor to the school office. Now, she’s held up as an example of what students can accomplish with more support from adults.

“If you get sent home or suspended, then you have more time to think about the problem that was happening,” Taylor said. “You start plotting something else that will get you in trouble.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘Respectful’ Approach to In-School Suspensions


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