Social Justice Solutions: “In 2009, when the Kings Canyon Unified School District in California’s rural Central Valley offered its 19 schools the opportunity to adopt a system that would reduce school suspensions and expulsions, Reedley High School jumped at the chance.
Today, Reedley is in its fourth year of changing a zero-tolerance policy that has failed this school and community miserably, just as every zero-tolerance policy across the country has. The school, which has 1,900 students, is feeling its way out of those draconian days by integrating PBIS — Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support — and entering into a unique partnership with the West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and the local police department to implement a successful restorative justice program.
This approach is already having remarkable effect. The school saw a 40% drop in suspensions from the 2010-2011 to the 2012-2013 school year — from 401 to 249 suspensions involving198 and 80 students, respectively. Expulsions went from 94 in 2010-2011 to 20 last year. But this year’s trends indicate that impressive decline may have stalled out.
Although everyone interviewed for this story – including the principal, learning director, and a teacher — says that suspensions don’t work, Reedley is still stuck with a harsh suspension policy that the district and the school board have barely loosened. Although the district was forward-thinking enough to support program changes and the school is beginning to deliver, like any entrenched system, the old ways of discipline pull hard against change, even if the data and the science that show the old ways damage kids are indisputable.
“It’s been a journey,” says Mary Ann Carousso head of student services. “We’re taking it in pieces.”
The sprawling Reedley High School campus includes an auditorium, library, and five hexagonal and several rectangular rows of classrooms around a large two-story building. On a clear winter day, the snow-capped Sierra Mountains form a stunning backdrop. As in most large high schools, adults barely corral the high-octane teen energy that erupts across the plaza between classes, and struggle to ignite and channel it during classes. The school draws as many students from the city of 25,000 as it does from the agricultural farming country it serves – nearly 80% are Latino, 16% are white, 1.5% are Asian, 1% are Filipino, and 0.7% are African-American. About 65% come from families that live just above, at, or below poverty level. The nearest city, Fresno, is 25 miles distant and worlds away.
Like most school districts in California, Kings Canyon adopted a zero-tolerance policy in the late 1990s. Just one year after the U.S. Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, theadoption of broad zero-tolerance policies spread like a virus across the United States. Once zero tolerance was locked in, school boards, districts, teachers and principals warped it, some say, by the pressure to perform well on tests. Kick the troublemakers out, and there’s less disruption and interruption in class.
But in the mid-2000s, data began showing that zero tolerance wasn’t working. In fact, it was shunting kids into a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately targets minorities. The research, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Unionconvinced people at the Fresno County Office of Education to look for alternatives for its 32 districts, which include Kings County.
“The research was constantly telling us that even one suspension could put a kid down a path we don’t want them on,” says Carousso. Providing reports to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and being watched by the ACLU also put Fresno County on notice. “Even though I’m not always glad of it,” Carousso says of the ACLU, “they point out things we should be aware of.”
The program that Fresno County settled on was PBIS, which is used in more than 20,011 schools nationwide; more than 700 of those are in California. In essence, says Carousso, PBIS helps the entire school system — teachers, administrators, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers — “set up kids for success first, instead of ‘gotcha’. It sounds hokey. It sounds corny.” But it works…to a point.”
Read the rest here.