When students show up late for class at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School, they aren’t marched off to the principal’s office for punishment, they’re greeted at the door by a “welcome team” of school staff that gets them talking about why they’re tardy and how to fix it.
Maybe they’re having problems at home, or they need help with transportation or even an automated wake-up phone call if that’s what it takes.
Those three-to-five minute conversations have reduced tardiness at Rainier Beach and are cited on page 48 of a massive report on discipline issued earlier this summer as an example of how stronger relationships between students and adults can nip misbehavior in the bud.
Far too often, middle schools and high schools are suspending and expelling students for minor misconduct, according to the report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
And students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are suspended or expelled at a higher rate than other students.
Rainier Beach started greeting tardy students with its welcome teams in the 2012-2013 school year. In mid 2012, the U.S. Department of Education initiated a civil rights investigation into the Seattle Public Schools’ discipline record to determine whether black students are punished more frequently and harshly than white students. That investigation is still ongoing.
The Council of State Governments’ report, issued in June, draws on interviews with more than 700 experts in education, mental health, law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. It offers 60 recommendations to make suspensions and expulsions the last resort reserved for serious threats to safety, instead of the default reaction whenever a student steps out of line.
Those recommendations include: Collecting better data to determine if some groups of students are being disciplined unfairly; training teachers and principals to keep disputes from getting out of hand in the first place; and creating a space on the school campus where students who are being disciplined aren’t cut off from instruction or counseling.
Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, said on his Science and Education blog that he hopes the report spurs much-needed reform in how schools handle discipline.
The value of the report lies not in the specificity of the recommendations, but in the breadth of its vision. It gives an administrator or legislator a view of just how broad the problem is, and emphasizes that attending to just one or two pieces of this complex puzzle will not be sufficient. And although it cannot serve as a policy guidebook, it does lay out big-picture conclusions based on solid research.