Special Education Opinion

How We Stopped Sending Students to Jail

By Robert W. Runcie & Antwan Wilson — May 08, 2017 5 min read
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It’s no longer news that for many kids in our most stressed communities, life can resemble that of a soldier on the battlefield—down to the post-traumatic physiological impact. It’s now well-known that kids bring the cumulative effects of violence, fear, and chaos to the classroom, operating in a constantly heightened emotional state that can damage their learning and create behavioral crises.

What’s bigger news is that schools have found approaches to these challenges that actually work, slashing arrest rates and lifting graduation rates.

As superintendents, we each have had the experience of being stunned, troubled, and moved to action by the rates at which schools were dispatching young people—especially boys of color and special-needs students—to the juvenile-justice system. And each of us has found that big changes in outcomes were possible.

How We Stopped Sending Students to Jail: Districtwide school disciple reforms can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Superintendents Robert Runcie and Antwan Wilson would know.

How? By moving away from simplistic zero-tolerance policies, toward an understanding of social-emotional learning and the underlying causes of disruptive behavior, and by changing from a power dynamic to a respect dynamic. It’s not about being soft, or giving fourth and fifth chances for unacceptable behavior. It’s about being more effective, by addressing behavioral problems at their roots. And it’s immensely urgent in a country where, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, African-American male students are suspended at triple the rate of white students.

It’s hard to overstate what a pivotal issue this can be for the life chances of kids in tough neighborhoods. In recent years, America has come to recognize how toxic stress and dysfunction in the home and neighborhood can trigger physiological fight-or-flight responses that leave students too anxious and distracted to learn well.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Paul Tough argues that childhood traumas are a powerful predictor of school struggles. He notes that research has identified that children with two or more such traumas demonstrate behavioral problems at a rate eight times greater than that of their peers and repeat grades at a rate double their peers’. Kids with at least one such incident account for 85 percent of behavior problems. But we don’t have to accept those hard facts as an inevitable reality.

Within the districts we lead, we’ve set out to change the odds by changing structures and approaches. Here’s what happened: In Broward County, Fla., behavioral referrals dropped by nearly a third, and arrests declined by nearly two-thirds. In Oakland, Calif., juvenile felony arrests declined 73 percent, according to county data—far outpacing drops in the surrounding county and state—and suspensions dropped by nearly half. Clearly, a lot of factors go into those rates. But it’s hard to miss the connections between our focus on restorative practices and the change in outcomes.

So what accounts for these results?

Reinventing power dynamics isn’t the way we’ve been trained to think and act as school people."

In Broward County, alarm among civil rights leaders and others over consistently high suspension and arrest rates provided the backdrop for action. In 2013, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, the courts, public defenders, social service agencies, and the legislature all agreed to come together in a task force aimed at breaking the connection between the schoolhouse and the jailhouse.

Previously, Broward had been executing zero tolerance pretty efficiently. But then, a new vision took hold, which was about not pushing kids out of school. Instead, the school district created a new school site where students spent anywhere from three to nine days receiving intensive intervention aimed at understanding and dealing with the issues that landed them there. Infractions that would have resulted in mandatory arrests could now be handled by a three- to nine-day referral to the new school. The resulting drops in behavioral referrals and arrest rates speak for themselves.

In Oakland, social-emotional-learning efforts were not a new focus when the district adopted a formal SEL policy in 2013. But there was an opportunity to deepen adult learning by training teachers and other educators to help students develop patience and self-regulation skills. Trainers also encourage teachers to re-examine student behaviors they may see as defiance or insubordination and which frequently lead to conflict. These changes went hand in hand with a renewed commitment to restorative justice, which prioritizes resolution and understanding between the victims and perpetrators of misbehavior, rather than punishment and retribution.

In Oakland, too, the impact is striking, including in some dramatic improvements in graduation rates for students of color.

While our approaches have differed, the fundamental notions behind them are the same: When schools dig in on the underlying reasons why kids violate norms, rather than reflexively and automatically punishing and sending kids away, outcomes can change quickly and dramatically. It’s especially important for everyone in a school to dig deep to decrease head-to-head conflict and understand behaviors that are often quickly labeled insubordination or disrespect.

Secondly, social-emotional learning isn’t just about helping kids. It also helps adults contend with the inevitable and sometimes extraordinary stresses of teaching and leading in schools that, in turn, contend with very stressed neighborhoods.

Finally, schools have to be willing to adapt and rethink, to reduce hierarchy, and to learn from the wider world of organizations and companies that have become flatter.

It’s thrilling to see leaders around this country—including many of our fellow superintendents and state schools chiefs as part of Chiefs for Change—embracing these ideas.

Reinventing power dynamics isn’t the way we’ve been trained to think and act as school people. It’s understandably difficult to modify the way we respond when students challenge our authority or do things that could endanger other students or adults. But none of this is about tolerating dangerous or problematic behavior. It’s about understanding it to find better solutions.

When we come together with a commitment to do that, we don’t just transform the possibilities for our students. We transform ourselves as well.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as How We Stopped Sending Students to Jail


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