First Coast Forum: A New Approach To Discipline

Aug 14, 2014

On Thursday, August 14 at 8 p.m., WJCT-TV and 89.9 FM in partnership with News4Jax will simulcast a First Coast Forum program examining the school to prison pipeline. This report is a preview of that discussion.

On a recent morning just a few weeks before school starts, teachers gather in Atlantic Coast High School for CHAMPS training.

Credit Rhema Thompson / WJCT

“You do have expectations for behavior for your kids when they come to the carpet; every teacher does,” one instructor tells the others. “All you have to do is wrap it up for us in this acronym.”

And that is what CHAMPS is: an acronym for student expectations.

There’s C which spells out expectations for classroom conversation.The H is for how to help.

“The A is for the activities—the activities they’d be doing,” explains Duval Schools District Specialist Carolyn Novelly, who leads the training sessions.

Then, there’s M for movement--as in when it’s OK for students to get up from their seats, P for Participation, and finally, S.

“The S actually just says that if you’re able to follow these expectations you’ll be successful, so it’s for success,” Novelly says.

It’s the classroom component to a larger district-wide shift in discipline away from one-size-fits all, zero-tolerance policies, and towards more progressive and preventative approaches.

It is a strategy that places less emphasis on punishment and more focus on prevention, based on the concept that behavior, like math or reading, can be taught. As Duval Schools’ Executive Director of Student Discipline Support, Michael McAuley oversees the district’s progressive, new approach.

“If we put emphasis on supporting teachers and students with what we know is more desired expectations, then we can reduce the amount of behaviors that become barriers to kids being successful,” he said. “Then we can slow down that (school to prison) pipeline and we can increase those outcomes we want for our students.

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to a national trend in which students removed from school for relatively minor offenses find themselves on a track to eventually serving hard time.

“Prior to 2009 in Duval County, we had tons of young people who were being arrested for, by all accounts, most folks will call disrespectful, maladaptive—but not necessarily criminal,” said Lawrence Hills, director of the Teen and Truancy Court Program of the Fourth Judicial Circuit. “If we keep the individuals out of the system at this point, they have the opportunity of being exposed to various different career fields and we can tell them at the end of the day ‘Hey, you can beat this’ because you don’t have any hindrance via a criminal record.”

That’s the idea behind the new code of student conduct rolled out by Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti this summer. Earlier this year he commissioned a community task forceof about 80 people to develop the new code.

Hills was part of that task Force, and he’s seen his fair share of youth move from classroom detention halls to juvenile detention centers over the years. Preventing that pathway begins with identifying the root of the behavior, he said.

“A lot of times, it’s a social cause, it’s trauma that these kids are experiencing,” he said. “You’re able to reach that by keeping that kid in a school setting as opposed to out-of-school suspension, where they’re out of the loop and may be able to interact with some more older adults and some of the criminal elements of their community.”

In fact, part of the impetus behind the revisions was the disproportionately high number of black students placed outside the classroom. While African-Americans make up 44 percent of the district’s student population in 2013, they accounted for 72 percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to the Florida Department of Education.

“The reality is we’ve been giving outdoor suspensions for a long time in Duval County, and it hasn’t necessarily changed what’s perceived as safety and what’s perceived as a high quality climate for learning,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

The revised code of conduct emphasizes alternatives to suspension like behavior contracts and conflict resolution measures. And it takes an individualized approach to punishing certain offenses such as fighting. For instance, a student responding to a fight would likely face a lesser consequence than the student who initiated it.

Some like School Board Member Jason Fischer, however, argue it still leaves some students vulnerable.

“When you have a situation where a child is being bullied and attacked and all they try to do is defend themselves, they shouldn’t be punished for it,” he said.

Fischer has been outspoken about addin a self-defense clause to the code. Under the current policies, students who react to an attack still face disciplinary action, which can include in-school suspension.     

“You should have discretion to be able to customize a solution so that not only do you hold children accountable but you also help them to learn and grow from that situation,” he said.

Lawrence Hills, with the Teen and Truancy Court program, believes that growth begins with expectations.

“When you set the expectation, these kids are going to rise to that,” he said. “If you set low expectations for kids, they’re going to meet that. If you set high expectations and you make them clear, typically, most kids are going to meet that.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.