Eye on Education

As expulsions, suspensions decrease at Fresno schools, concerns about out-of-control classrooms grow

First-graders, sitting in a circle, hug as a group during a classroom session at Alice Birney Elementary School in Fresno. Students meet together as an entire class as well as in smaller more private groups as part of the restorative justice program used in Fresno Unified School District.
First-graders, sitting in a circle, hug as a group during a classroom session at Alice Birney Elementary School in Fresno. Students meet together as an entire class as well as in smaller more private groups as part of the restorative justice program used in Fresno Unified School District. ezamora@fresnobee.com

In a quiet third-grade classroom at Birney Elementary School in central Fresno, students sit in a circle on the floor and speak only when they’re handed a purple stone – “the talking piece.”

Today’s question, posed by Fresno Unified restorative practices counselor Jill Blanks, is: What can you do to be a good friend?

“You say ‘Sorry’ when you hit them,” one student says, passing the stone to the classmate beside her, who responds, “You help each other out.”

“It builds leaders within the kids,” said Blanks, who leads these “restorative circles” across the district. “They connect with each other and they bond, which gives them that connection to school. I have seen certain kids change – from having issues on the playground to really listening when somebody is talking and understanding the way that relationships work.”

The circle is just one technique being used in classrooms across the Valley and the country, as educators move away from zero-tolerance discipline policies and work to get to the root of students’ issues. The educational shift toward restorative justice aims to curb suspensions and expulsions, and avoid setting up students for failure later in life. But critics in Fresno say the new policies have backfired and are making classrooms spiral out of control – disrupting student learning and diminishing teachers’ sense of safety.

Expulsions in California dropped by 20 percent and suspensions by about 15 percent from the 2012-13 school year to 2013-14, according to the California Department of Education. At Fresno Unified School District – the fourth-largest district in the state – discipline numbers have dropped dramatically over the past five years as teachers have been directed to provide intervention before misbehavior escalates to requiring out-of-school punishment.

In 2010-11, Fresno Unified expelled about 500 students – more than any other California school district at the time, according to a report by Children Now, a national child advocacy organization. Last year, the district had only 144 expulsions.

About 8,200 students were suspended in the district last school year, down from more than 13,000 students in 2011-12.

Fresno Unified expulsions, 2013-14

Fresno Unified is suspending or kicking out fewer students these days. Expulsions in 2013-14 were down nearly 58 percent compared to 2011-12, and suspensions were off 22 percent, according to the latest data available from the state Department of Education. (The state did not have Fresno Unified discipline data for 2012-13.)

Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice says she believes in the philosophy behind restorative justice, but thinks the district is too focused on what statistics look like on paper instead of making real changes in students’ lives.

“I would argue that the numbers are down not because the behavior that causes those things has been addressed, but because administrators are simply not suspending and expelling kids anymore,” she said. “So what’s happened is that students are learning very quickly that there are no consequences for disruptive behavior.”

But Ambra Dorsey, executive director of Fresno Unified’s Department of Prevention and Intervention, said it’s simply about helping children succeed.

“We’re not just saying we’re not going to suspend and expel anymore. We’re looking at the why behind the behavior,” Dorsey said. “If a kid is having problems on campus, before it escalates to the point where they need (to be) suspended, they may just need to talk and reflect, then go back to class. We are trying to minimize traditional, exclusionary discipline, because we know the learning isn’t happening there.”

Fresno Unified suspensions, 2013-14

Would you punish students who struggle with reading by kicking them out of school, and then expect them to read fluently when they return?

That was the question Jessica Hannigan asked dozens of Fresno County teachers in October at a training event focused on positive approaches to student discipline.

The obvious answer is no. But Hannigan, an education consultant who works with teachers throughout the region, says that’s exactly how many schools handle student behavior issues.

Both Hannigan and the Fresno County Office of Education promote the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports model established by the U.S. Department of Education, which aims to teach behavioral expectations the same way as any other subject, by making schoolwide changes. Hannigan urges teachers and school leaders to blame the system, not the kids.

“The key is, we’re really focusing on positive language. We hear a lot of, ‘Don’t do this’ but not a lot of, ‘Do this,’ ” Hannigan said. “We want students and teachers to connect on a deeper level and to know what respect looks like in a classroom. It’s about an expected culture in schools.

“But it’s a big process to change the belief systems of adults,” she said.

New proactive approaches to discipline can be seen across the Valley’s schools, but the methods vary, Hannigan said.

When two Central Unified School District students get into a fight, they typically aren’t suspended. Instead, someone steps in to ask why the fight started, and then the students spend several weeks talking through their problems with a counselor and with each other. Students and teachers sign “respect agreements” – a contract that outlines expected behaviors.

Central Unified was recognized as having above-average declines in out-of-school discipline in a report released last month by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, which shows higher student achievement in the state is related to lower suspension rates.

“For us, we kept having repeat offenders. We were complying with education code and ‘handling the discipline problem,’ but we weren’t handling the cause of the behavior that it was in response to,” said Laurel Ashlock, assistant superintendent for Central Unified. “Discipline is usually synonymous with something after the fact. But we’re teaching them to think through it before they act. Whether it’s academic or behavioral, we are teaching students to think – that’s our whole goal.”

But Ashlock admits it poses challenges.

“It’s a lot easier to do it the old way, where you get rid of the problem for a short-term, but the kids come back and do the same things,” she said. “Of course, it takes more time, more skill on the part of the teacher, but it definitely has long-term ramifications for student success.”

Kings Canyon Unified School District leaders worked with local organizations, churches and law enforcement to build its restorative justice policy, and has significantly lowered suspensions and expulsions, as well as juvenile offenses in the community.

The school district – which enrolls about 10,000 students – has recruited and trained more than 70 volunteers who mediate conflict resolution meetings with student offenders, victims and their families.

Offenders are offered a chance to avoid out-of-school punishment by attending a sort of mock court, where they can apologize and hear the victim’s side of the story. Students’ families are invited to attend, and if a victim doesn’t want to participate, volunteers will represent a “victim panel” so the process can continue. An offender typically leaves with a meaningful consequence related to the offense that doesn’t force them out of school.

“There’s tons of tears and they learn things about each other’s background that they didn’t know,” said Mary Ann Carousso, director of student services for Kings Canyon Unified. “The people who do it believe in it. That’s the biggest selling point – you’ve got people who believe these kids need a second chance. I have the luxury of not having to have an opinion on whether restorative justice is right for adults, but who wouldn’t say that it’s absolutely the role of schools to take kids who have messed up and show them how to be? To give them a chance to fix it and move on – that’s what we exist for.”

In Merced County, some schools are taking a “trauma-informed” approach. David Lockridge, a psychologist-turned-preacher, consults with schools in the area and trains teachers to identify students who come from stressful homes and then teaches those students how to cope with their feelings instead of acting out.

Lockridge’s work is centered on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experience study, which finds that childhood experiences significantly impact adults’ wellness and happiness.

“What’s needed most is for teachers to connect emotionally with their students. I know that sounds ethereal or general, but it really is the basis of helping these kids.

“The biggest insult and the biggest damage of a traumatic childhood is losing or never gaining the ability to emotionally connect to somebody else,” Lockridge said. “You’re going to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, and you’re going to give students the tools they need to better understand themselves and become less reactive. I have seen students who are angry, inattentive and literally unable to learn because persistent, inescapable stress becomes toxic. I don’t care what you’re teaching – if a student is experiencing toxic stress, they won’t learn.”

Fresno Unified swapped its zero-tolerance policy for restorative practices in 2013 at the urging of organizations such as Fresno Building Healthy Communities that said punishing students by kicking them out of school was pushing them to a life of crime.

“What really came out of the young people we were working with was, ‘We can’t do good in school because we’re getting kicked out of school.’ At the time, we thought, we’re a health initiative – we don’t know how that fits in. But we looked at it with a broader lens of public health and asked, ‘How are these children living? What’s happening at home?’ ” said the organization’s manager, Sandra Celedon-Castro. “When the student is acting out, the first question should be ‘Why?’ 

Celedon-Castro says that restorative practices work because they give students resources they need to address problems that affect their performance in school, but she has heard the critics: It’s too easy on kids, it’s too much work for teachers and it takes away from the “good” students.

“A part of the reason it has a bad rap is because people think it’s a free pass – that it means you’re not holding the child accountable. But what it actually is, is you’re only holding them accountable for the things they can control,” she said. “It’s unfair to hold someone accountable for living in a neighborhood that is riddled with crime and all of these other external things that impact a child’s learning.”

Recent legislation also is contributing to the decline in out-of-school discipline. This year, California became the first state to limit schools’ power to discipline students. AB 420 forbids school administrators from expelling students for “willful defiance” – a term that is subject to wide interpretation.

The law also prevents students in kindergarten through third grade from being suspended for willful defiance, which, according to state education code, is “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school staff.”

Willful defiance accounts for the majority of suspensions and expulsions in the state. In Fresno County, nearly 3,000 students had in-school suspensions for willful defiance in 2014, and nearly 6,000 were suspended out of school for it. There were 16 expulsions in the county attributed to the rule.

While the numbers are declining across the board, Valley schools still are suspending and expelling students at higher rates than the state average. Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties’ suspension rates are around 6 percent, while the state suspension rate is 4.4 percent. Madera County suspends students at a rate of 8 percent.

But critics say there’s not enough discipline happening – and those downward trends are making classrooms more dangerous.

‘How do you maintain order?’

“(A student) rushed at me and started socking me in the stomach. I attempted to hold his hands and restrain him, even though we are not supposed to do that. He then started kicking me and head-butting me in the stomach. I held him for 10 minutes before someone came in and got him. All he got was a three-day suspension and a fresh start in another class. He attacked that teacher, too.”

That’s what one Fresno Unified teacher reported to the Fresno Teachers Association in an anonymous survey about school discipline and classroom violence. The districtwide survey was done in an attempt to paint an accurate picture of Fresno classrooms while alleviating teachers’ fears of being reprimanded for speaking out, and was in response to recent incidents of students attacking teachers.

To see the survey, click here. (Warning: Survey contains offensive language.)

Another anonymous report says, “A student threw a chair across the room when I took his phone away. He cussed at me, flipped me off and knocked over a desk  I’m often told not to engage with students who are being a disruption in class and ignore as much as possible their behavior.”

One teacher explains, “A student was seen touching his privates in class and sexually harassing others and was not even suspended.”

In September, a video from inside a Roosevelt High School classroom showed a student repeatedly punching a teacher after he took her cellphone. Last month, a student allegedly assaulted teacher Roy Verduzco at Bullard High School when he tried to break up a fight between her and another student.

Verduzco was sent to the hospital following the incident for high blood pressure, but he said it wasn’t the first fight he has had to intervene in. He is joining other Fresno Unified teachers to push for stricter discipline policies and a “tighter safety plan” for classrooms.

“I was just trying to protect my students and it escalated, unfortunately. I honestly think that most teachers would do what I did to try to protect their classrooms,” he said. “There’s not a set formula for how to respond. I know teachers who say they don’t know how to react or what’s expected of them. All I want is to be a part of the solution.”

The FTA’s Joint Safety Committee, which compiled the survey results, has in recent years called for Fresno Unified officials to implement a stricter discipline policy and build more alternative schools, but district leaders continue to push restorative practices instead.

Committee Chairman Doug Finks, who teaches at schools across the district, said Fresno Unified’s attempt to cut down on strict discipline for minor offenses has instead pushed administrators away from disciplining students entirely. He says he’s not impressed by the plummeting suspension and expulsion numbers.

“When the whole goal is just to reduce the numbers, of course, you’re going to have success. You just don’t (suspend or expel) anymore. But that doesn’t mean the behavior has been corrected,” he said. “Now a kid watches another kid cuss out a teacher to their face, and that kid comes back 10 minutes later and the class knows it’s acceptable. It just keeps growing and growing. We have to do something or it’s going to get worse.”

In 2014, more than 4,000 offenses at Fresno Unified were due to students causing, attempting or threatening physical injury. Nearly 2,000 included obscenity, profanity and vulgarity, and more than 900 involved possession or sale of drugs and/or alcohol.

“We’re talking about some unbelievable offenses that are going to have a negative impact on our city. Is sitting in a circle holding hands going to change that? No,” Finks said. “We already know that Fresno is a very tough place to live. That’s why it’s even more important to have strict discipline policies. In light of disorder, we have to be orderly. If we don’t do that, the city is going to fail. The people who advocate for restorative justice aren’t considering that it’s not about the 1 or 2 percent, it’s about the 30 kids sitting in that classroom who are not able to access their education because of those few kids.”

Finks says that new approaches actually are hurting kids instead of helping them by teaching that there aren’t real consequences for bad behavior. He says critics who claim out-of-school discipline contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline are overreacting.

“Nobody wants kids to go to prison. I’ve had some of my students go to prison, and it’s heart-wrenching because you know their future is impacted for the rest of their lives,” he said. “But to say that suspension is going to lead to prison, I think that’s grossly inaccurate.”

Don Arax, teacher and football coach at Bullard High School, said he sees the impact restorative justice has on the school system – and he says it does more harm than good.

“We have teachers who are afraid on these campuses. If there were hidden cameras in these classrooms, people would not believe it. The public would be outraged,” he said.

“Some parts of restorative justice, in theory, sound great. But how do you maintain order in a school when the kids are clearly in control? To me, it’s a common-sense approach to discipline: yes, provide support for kids, but if you don’t have consequences for bad actions – one of them being you can no longer attend this school because you’re affecting the learning environment – what about the rights of the kids in the classroom who want to learn? They have no rights.”

Rice said for teachers, it’s a Catch-22: They want to help students who need it, but which student’s time do they steal to do that? In recent negotiations, the FTA has called for more full-time social workers and psychologists at schools to address these issues, but Fresno Unified contends that the counselor-student ratio is higher than most districts across the state. The district currently employs 94 counselors and 16 social workers for its nearly 75,000 students. Twelve of those counselors solely focus on the implementation of restorative practices.

“The classroom teacher has very little time to really devote to the social-emotional aspect of the student. … Some students need really intensive interventions, and we’re not the credentialed counselors who can provide that,” she said. “The district pulls (students) out to do drive-by counseling for 15 to 20 minutes and puts them back in the classroom.”

Rice said she believes in restorative justice – if it’s done right.

“I would never advocate suspending kids, but I really believe this is a system that is going to create problems for students later on,” she said. “They need to understand there are positive consequences for good choices and negative consequences for bad choices – any parent would say that’s how they raise their kid. Why should it be any different at school if we want them to be good, healthy, productive citizens when they grow up?”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

Related stories from Fresno Bee