By Guest Authors Berlinda Mojica and Godfrey Plata
For far too long, the response to misbehavior in the classroom has been removal, even at early, preschool ages. This very act of displacing the student is identical to our society's one-size-fits-all response to criminal behavior: We lock people up before considering the opportunity to redirect and rehabilitate.
Last month, the Houston Independent School District via its budget process took a step away from that school-to-prison pipeline by downsizing resources for the district's alternative school, instituting a ban on pre-K-second grade suspensions and providing an almost $900,000 expansion of socioemotional services districtwide. In passing the budget, HISD trustees have demonstrated a commitment to moving from a paradigm of punishment to one of prevention and rehabilitation.
Here's what that new paradigm could look like, as one teacher's experience showed when she took the initiative to learn alternative ways of dealing with poor student behavior.
At a recent teach-in organized by the Organizing Network for Education Houston (ONE Houston), Natalie Pimblett, an HISD first-grade teacher, shared experiences of students stabbing her with scissors, others cutting her hair and clothes. Pimblett, faced with the daunting challenge, researched behavior-intervention programs and began to use them in her classroom. "With the support of these programs and my wonderful administration," Pimblett told us at the teach-in, "I was able to reduce violent outbursts in my classroom and successfully de-escalate behavior incidents. This semester, I have not had to write up a single behavior report."
Without Pimblett's intervention, students more likely would have been on a direct path to suspensions, expulsions, alternative schools and, ultimately, the juvenile system. Resorting to exclusionary discipline is not the answer; like Pimblett, we educators can choose to seek a deeper understanding of the root causes of misbehavior and address them with developmentally-appropriate strategies. Just as we teach math and reading, we can teach our students how to maneuver their emotions.
According to research conducted at Texas A&M University, "the single greatest predictor of future involvement in the juvenile system is a history of disciplinary referrals at school."
In HISD, the majority of referrals are violations of the student code of conduct, 85 percent of which are nonviolent infractions. Repeated violations can result in removal to a District Alternative Education Program. With unrestrained and unscrutinized use of DAEPs, HISD and many districts around the country are actively maintaining the school-to-prison pipeline. Until this next school year, our district has paid $11.9 million annually for 1,000 seats at Beechnut Academy. However, even at its fullest, Beechnut Academy has hosted - at most - around 800 students. This results in a yearly waste of public dollars in a district that is already strapped for cash. Moreover, these public dollars fund a program that hires non-HISD staff members and has not resulted in increased career-and-college-readiness for students.
HISD's reduction of the private contract by $3.3 million signals a more responsible use of public funds. Most recently, HISD has added three new safeguards to its contract with Camelot in order to ensure a higher standard of safety for kids being sent to Beechnut Academy. From the downsized budget, the school board was able to add $879,070 to the current socioemotional services budget of $2 million.
The HISD school board trustees and staff have done the right thing by prioritizing the social-emotional development of students rather than encouraging the use of punitive systems.
Starting next year, HISD can be a model for the nation in the way student behavior is managed. It is creating a district-level team of licensed school psychologists, a socioemotional learning director, a behavior intervention manager and a deployable crisis intervention manager. Think of it as a socio-emotional "SWAT team."
But rather than advancing the oppressive discipline systems that have saddled HISD schools and kids for decades, we want to be sure this team works to ensure that exclusionary discipline - taking kids out of the classroom as punishment - is a true last resort. Such a move would be extraordinary - for HISD, sure, but especially for students, for whom the pipeline might very well now direct them to graduation and a productive life.
Photo Credit: Matthew White, Freelance