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Changing the way schools discipline students

Los Angeles schools are trying to change the way they deal with misbehaving students.
Los Angeles schools are trying to change the way they deal with misbehaving students.
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Harsh discipline in Los Angeles public schools may be doing more harm than good. Students who commit even minor infractions can end up being suspended, or expelled. Many end up dropping out. Now there's an experiment underway at a handful of schools to change that. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman Lopez reports

In the last year, education activists in Los Angeles and other California cities have ramped up their efforts to switch out punitive disciplinary policies with intervention and other approaches. They've won a few victories – and LA Unified administrators say other changes to discipline policy are on the way.

Harsh discipline derailed 20-year-old Claudia Gomez's academic career, she says. After she finished middle school with good grades, she dreamed of becoming a doctor with a diploma from Bravo Medical Magnet High School. But problems at home clouded her prospects.

"My sister had passed away, her boyfriend shot her in front of our house, he also shot my other older sister, it was just the three of us. I was grieving and I didn't have that person that I can talk to and be like, 'Help me,' you know."

Gomez said problems controlling her anger slowed her transition to high school. She ended up getting in a fight with another girl in the school restroom.

"They had to put stitches on her left eyebrow and they had to put some band around my wrist because I hit her wrong and my bone had dislocated the little wrist bone," said Gomez.

Gomez says one teacher told her he knew she could do better, but he never stepped up to help.

"I admitted that I had anger management problems because all of a sudden I would turn into some violent person when something would trigger me. I never got anger management classes. I would just be sent home if I was crying."

Three suspensions, an expulsion and a court appearance over $3,000 in truancy tickets kept her away from college prep classes. Gomez earned her high school diploma through independent study. Now she's working with activists who urge counseling and positive behavior intervention instead of automatic penalties for troubled students.

At a rally in downtown L.A., connected by teleconference to other California cities, Gomez and about a hundred other students, teachers and parents demanded an end to what they call the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Maisie Chin, the head of a non-profit that mobilizes parents, says the pipeline begins when adults don't guide students toward good behavior.

"What we learned in our door knocking is just how dehumanizing of an experience it can be and how much it really led to people leaving the educational process and leaving school," she said.

In recent years the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A. Schools Police have issued tens of thousands of student truancy tickets – many during sweeps just before the school bell rings. Officers have handcuffed and frisked many students close to campus.

As activists milled about after the rally, Westchester High School eleventh grader Tegegne Alemseged read the group a poem about the mood at his school:

"If you were in my shoes, how would you feel, waking up every day and the first thing you see is people underestimating you, thinking that there is no way you can succeed, if you were in my shoes would you come to school knowing teachers don't care whether you learn or not."

The 665,000 student L.A. Unified school district logged 35,000 suspensions last school year. Those suspensions disproportionately affect black and Latino students, said author of the book "Lockdown High," Annette Fuentes.

"It's a simple calculus – you keep being suspended for bad behaviors, you keep falling by the wayside in your academic work and pretty soon you drop out of school feeling that you're not welcome at school, not getting support from teachers, you end up in the juvenile justice system," she said.

Fuentes and others aren't saying that districts shouldn't punish drugs, weapons or violence at school. But teachers and others can help prevent those problems by making their expectations and consequences clear, and by reinforcing positive behavior.

That's what Edison Middle School, west of Huntington Park, started to do a couple of years ago.

Principal Pedro Garcia pointed to a birdhouse-sized wooden box in the attendance office. In the hallway there are banners and posters that emphasize leadership and compassion, alongside places of honor for the student and staffer of the month.

When Edison Middle School data connected most of its discipline problems to defiance, Garcia says, it was important to define what that meant to adults and students "so that kids are not being removed from class for not having a pencil or for looking at someone the wrong way or for dropping a notebook and causing other students to laugh because those are incidences that can be handled in the classroom."

Principal Garcia says the new policy has resulted in fewer suspensions and higher test scores. But he maintains that those changes didn’t happen soon enough to keep students from dropping out under the old discipline rules.

USC researcher Ron Astor welcomes L.A. Unified's push to replicate Edison's success at hundreds of other schools. He doubts it will work system-wide without changing teacher education.

"I think if teachers and principals and superintendents are not trained while at a university to understand the mission and the function of a school to include school safety issues and school climate and social emotional issues, programs that come in afterwards last for a much shorter period of time," he said.

Astor believes discipline reforms should be part of a larger discussion about returning American schools to what they managed to accomplish generations ago: fostering academic competence, human compassion and engagement with neighbors and government.