Schools 
diverge on discipline

04/03/2014

A group of intoxicated Tomales High School students busted through locked gates and spun donuts on the football field’s new grass late one night in February, causing an estimated $20,000 in damage. Eight of the students were suspended from classes. One girl, a freshman suspended for five days, later said she regretted being there. She fell behind in a backlog of time-consuming work she had missed, and recently finished making up assignments.

A new Civil Grand Jury report released last month questions whether such disciplinary action may cause more long-term harm to the student and the school environment than the wrongdoing a suspension is intended to correct. 

One in every 14 students at Tomales High School was suspended during the last school year, almost twice as high as the county’s total rate and slightly higher than the state’s. Tomales Elementary also suspended seven students the last year, putting it slightly above the county average. San Geronimo Valley Elementary and West Marin Elementary each suspended one student, and Lagunitas Elementary suspended three. The region’s other elementary schools—Bodega Bay Elementary, Inverness Elementary and Bolinas-Stinson Elementary—did not have any suspensions last year.

While the county as a whole dropped suspensions by 14 percent during the last school year, Lagunitas and Shoreline both slightly increased their suspension rates. 

Across the state, school districts have begun to adapt their disciplinary policies to more progressive ideas of restorative justice. After the state banned corporal punishment in schools—as late as 1986—many school officials did not want to appear weak and instituted zero-tolerance policies with harsh penalties for misbehavior. 

Only recently have schools responded to a growing body of research that shows punitive policies disproportionately affect minority students, often fail to change behavior and can lead to heightened drop-out rates.

“What we know for certain is that in order for students to achieve their goals related to school, they have to be present,” said Mary Jane Burke, the county’s superintendent of schools. “In some very limited instances, in fact, the option of a suspension might be the right option, but it should be in limited cases. The goal is to keep kids in school, keep them engaged and do everything we can to meet them where they are.”

The state legislature has attempted to remedy the problem by revising the education code—which sets out 20 behaviors that can qualify for a suspension or expulsion—to discourage suspensions except when “other means of correction fail.” But even though the new law has been in place for more than a year, few of the county’s school boards have formalized the change in their own student handbooks or district policies.

“The popular explanation behind discretionary power has to do with the uniqueness of every locale. Who better to understand what is appropriate than those on site?” the grand jury report states. “Others argue, however, that such profound power is a recipe for inconsistency, with every school having its own mix of solutions and consequences.”

Tomales High’s student handbook lists 31 violations—from brandishing a knife or committing sexual assault to speaking profanities or arriving tardy to class—along with minimum and maximum punishments. 

At minimum, more than half of the violations automatically qualify for a suspension and often a police report that could land the student in juvenile hall. Most of the suspensions at Shoreline last year were related to illicit drugs, with 11 out of 24 suspensions drug-related.

Two Tomales High staff declined to comment for this story, and another three administrators—Superintendent Tom Stubbs, Principal Adam Jennings and Counselor Steffan O’Neill—did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The lack of specificity in the education code over how to punish wrongdoing gives school administrators leeway in deciding the best way to respond. “If a student violates the items listed in that code section, suspension or possible expulsion is the course of action,” said Jane Realon, the principal at Tomales Elementary. “Luckily we rarely have to go there with our kids,” she added.

But where theft of personal property could mean a police report and a several-day suspension at Tomales High, according to the student handbook, Lagunitas Elementary School might resolve the problem differently, said Principal Laura Shain.

“We do try to use the restorative justice model when feasible and practical,” she said. “For us, at the K-8 level, a lot of it involves discussion and looking at the consequences of behavior.” 

Ms. Shain put the principle into action a few weeks ago when one child was secretly stealing food from other students’ lunchboxes, an ongoing problem they could not solve for weeks. After a culprit was finally identified, the students sat on the floor of the library and told how they felt to have something stolen and to distrust their classmates. The boy who had been stealing was so emotionally moved that he wanted to make it up to the other students by bringing them pizza, cookies or other treats.

“The students who originally felt harmed were so incredibly forgiving. They said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Your apology is enough,’” Ms. Shain recounted. “Not only did the behavior change, it never happened again. It made the community closer. Often when a student is misbehaving, it is because they are not connected to the community in some way.  To actually send them away is counter-productive.”

Ms. Shain said she would consider suspensions when a law has been broken or family involvement is necessary. Keeping a child home from school can often be a hardship for working parents, so she said she tries to restrict the use to those times when parent involvement is sorely needed.

At West Marin Elementary, Principal Matt Nagle said the environment of a small school and an actively involved community allows more resources to be devoted to prevention, rather than
punishment.

“I consider it to be rather a failure when we have to suspend a student. We do everything we can to prevent having to get to that point. That’s a luxury at most schools,” he said. “We try to really develop these relationships from the get-go and grow that relationship through the whole year before you get to that point were you have something that warrants a suspension.”

At his former jobs, with three or four times as many students, Mr. Nagle said he became more accustomed to suspending students for fighting. Often, the students who were acting out felt marginalized, perhaps because they did not have care from their parents and felt they were not receiving enough attention at school. 

At his current job, he hosts monthly assemblies to foster a positive environment by recognizing student’s achievements and to address a few areas for improvement. The last meeting focused on preventing cyber-bullying.

“While we have made great progress in the last five years, we still have a ways to go,” Ms. Burke said. “What were trying to do is look at the best practices countywide, see which parts fit in a different community and then adapt to keep that cycle of learning.” 

 

Judith Bravo contributed to this article.