DeKalb schools’ new approach reduces student misbehavior

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Steve Green said, “Our own teachers identified students that show the potential to go down this path. The … presence of a caring adult in the life of a child cannot be underestimated.”

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Steve Green said, “Our own teachers identified students that show the potential to go down this path. The … presence of a caring adult in the life of a child cannot be underestimated.”

A concerted effort to address student wrongdoing at some DeKalb County schools has resulted in a 50 percent drop in disciplinary actions, and the number of suspensions is down more than 75 percent.

Superintendent Steve Green said professionals from the schools were trained on restorative practices, figuring out ways to better interact with students and understand root causes for issues at school and at home. The result has been tremendous, he said.

“We are making a contribution to interrupt this bigger picture and pipeline (to prison) and turning a pathway that is destructive into one that is constructive,” he said.

Green said he wanted to address discipline before he even knew what the numbers looked like. Past experience showed him students of color across the country were being disproportionately pushed out of classrooms as they face criminal punishment for classroom infractions, in what is often called the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, students are pushed into the juvenile and criminal justice systems at alarming rates when they could benefit more from additional education or counseling.

Green said he addressed disciplinary procedures by having district officials update the system’s Student Code of Conduct, which included disciplinary protocols that included getting authorities involved, often very early, without finding what triggered the behavior.

According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, a graduate school in Bethlehem, Pa., “people are happier, more cooperative, more productive and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”

Five schools where restorative-practices training was implemented accounted for nearly 40 percent of the district’s student infractions: Oak View Elementary School, Columbia Middle School, Lithonia Middle School, Columbia High School and Lithonia High School.

According to district data from the Georgia Department of Education, the number of student infractions during the 2015-2016 school year was 24,847. Last year, the number was down more than 20 percent to 19,399. Most of that change came from the schools in the restorative-practices pilot program, Green said.

During the 2016-2017 school year, when the restorative practices were put into place, infractions at those five schools decreased nearly 48 percent to 5,465 from 10,375 the previous school year. Suspensions – both in- and out-of-school – dropped 76 percent, from 14,751 to 3,512.

“They’re constantly looking at other options,” Green said. “They’re not resorting to the last resort. They’re looking to alternative pathways.”

Chronic absenteeism was also among the problems to be addressed, Green said. In the year following implementation, some schools saw double-digit drops in chronic absenteeism, where students miss more than 15 days a year. At Oak View Elementary, for example, chronic absenteeism was down 28 percent.

The biggest change so far at Ronald E. McNair Middle School, said Principal Ronald B. Mitchell, is that students are making better decisions even when they don’t think they’re being watched.

Mostly, he said, because the students are now being rewarded “for doing the right thing.”

“We haven’t done a good job of giving positive attention to kids other than (for) grades,” Mitchell said. “That’s the big difference. I’ve got kids doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and not because it’s a rule. That rubs off on other kids, too.”

Mitchell said most of the infractions at his school included students pushing or hitting others. In the past, punishment would range from verbal warnings to suspension. The restorative-practices model looks into the root cause for the action, and tries to address that matter before it gets further out of hand. Parents are engaged in the process as well, he said.

“Now, we counsel with the kids involved,” he said. “We want to know if it’s something going on here, or at home, and we get the parents involved so they can help on their end.”

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