Reviewing Three New Studies on Student Discipline, Disproportionate Office Referrals, and Racial Inequity
It’s Not about School Shootings! It’s about Recognizing What Needs to Change in our Classrooms
Life does not occur in a vacuum.
And as related to reality and practice, school research certainly does not occur in a vacuum.
But sometimes, that’s how it is presented in the “popular” educational press. And sometimes, that’s how it’s read and used in our schools.
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During the past two to three weeks, three important national reports on school safety and student discipline were published and reported on in the popular educational press.
A few fairly-common vacuums emerged.
One vacuum is that a lot of national data on school safety and discipline, classroom management and student engagement, and teacher attitudes and students’ (social-emotional) needs seem to be published during the summer. . . when many educators are “on vacation.”
This creates a vacuum where many educational leaders don’t have the time to discuss—with colleagues and staff—the reports’ outcomes, recommendations, and “lessons” so that needed changes can be planned, prepared, and implemented at the beginning of the new school year.
A second vacuum—as occurred these past few weeks—is that different organizations embargo their reports, releasing them at the time that will result in the most attention and press. Like the staggered announcements on different Supreme Court rulings, these organizations don’t want their “earth-shattering” report to be unveiled on the same day as another organization’s “don’t-miss” report on the same topic.
Thus, many times, the reports are published on separate days, and no time (or website space) is invested in comparing and contrasting the reports to identify similarities, differences, and contradictions. . . because another report comes on its heals.
Popular press journalists have deadlines, and they are not writing for professional journals. They don’t have time to do in-depth comparative analyses. And their audience—which typically wants to know the “bottom line” in a matter of minutes—is probably not going to read and digest the analysis anyways.
A final vacuum is that, once again—because it is the summer—some educational leaders will see one report but miss others. . . that may have contradictory results.
When educational leaders have not analyzed all of the reports on a specific topic, nor thoughtfully considered their implications for their schools, staff, and students... they respond in a vacuum, and end up unintentionally making less effective strategic decisions.
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As noted earlier, this Blog will integrate and comparatively analyze three important national reports, sequentially published over the last three weeks, detailing school safety and student discipline data from the school year that just ended. We discuss what these reports reflect as the current “state of affairs” relative to school safety, disproportionate office discipline referrals, student behavior, and racial equity.
Hopefully, the integration—and our specific recommendations—will help educational leaders make the strategic decisions and plans—this coming new school year—that are needed to address the social, emotional, and behavioral issues in their schools, resulting in the success that we all aspire to.
It’s Not All About School Shootings. . . Even though It Seems that Way
With all due respect: While many believe that the Uvalde school shooting represents a “turning point” in how we view and what we do to prevent future school shootings, I am not buying it.
When you look at all of the past school shootings. . . it seems clear that we have short memories. . . until the next school shooting.
The ultimate realities are:
- Every school is at risk when it comes to the “next” school shooting.
- School shootings are local events that occur or do not occur due to local decisions. . . at the school, community, and home levels.
- School shootings, then, are prevented at the local level. . .
. . . with attention, for example: (a) to staff-to-student relationships; (b) to nurturing positive relationships among different peers groups (while eliminating negative peer interactions like bullying and social rejection); and/or (c) to the willingness for someone (the local gun salesperson, the peer who has seen the student’s social media post, the parents who are aware of their adolescent’s recent depression) to speak up when potential school shooters telegraph their intent.
But right now, educator awareness is high, and our memories are fresh.
Education Week (“The World Feels Less Stable: Educators’ Sense of School Safety Right Now,” June 23, 2022) recently shared its survey of 875 district and school leaders and teachers—completed during the second week of June, just weeks after the Uvalde shooting.
- Four in 10 educators feel less safe in their schools now than they did five years ago. School shootings factor heavily into their fears, but so does a swirl of other dynamics, from an angry political climate to a rise in student and parent aggression.
- While 40 percent said they felt less safe than five years ago, 38 percent said their sense of safety hadn’t changed in that period. Two in 10 said they felt safer.
- At the same time, in another question, 6 in 10 teachers and administrators said that fear of a “purposeful mass homicide” at their schools—by an outsider or a student— was a key factor in their worries about safety.
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Critically, a few Blogs ago, I noted that—especially from a preventative perspective—school shootings need to be put into the context of a school or district’s extreme failure to design, implement, and evaluate a comprehensive multi-tiered social-emotional learning system.
June 11, 2022
Why School Shootings are Extreme SEL Events at the Far End of the Social-Emotional Learning Continuum. . .And Why Schools Need to Conduct SEL Audits and Needs Assessments to Decrease the Future Risks
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I maintain that position today. . . not that there aren’t extraordinary challenges.
Indeed, Chalkbeat (“More Student Fights and Classroom Disruptions this Past Year, Data Show,” July 6, 2022) reported the results of a May, 2022 survey completed by the National Center for Educational Statistics involving nearly 850 public school leaders—mostly principals—that looked at school discipline this past school year.
Summarizing the National Center’s survey, the Chalkbeat article noted:
- (M)any schools did see tensions rise this past year as students nationwide returned to fully in-person learning. For many educators, the behavior challenges were a defining feature of the school year—and complicated efforts to rebuild school communities and get students back on track academically.
- Educators said that the upticks were to be expected, as many students were still dealing with heightened stress, isolation, and mental health needs this past year. Grief also still permeates many students’ lives as an estimated 200,000 children and teens in the U.S. have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID since the pandemic began.
- More than half of the school leaders reported an increase in classroom disruptions from student misconduct that they believed were brought on by the effects of the pandemic. Moreover, according to the National Center survey, (a) 70% of the schools reported increased chronic student absenteeism—starting from the beginning of the Pandemic; (b) 80% of the schools reported that the Pandemic had taken a toll on students’ social-emotional development; and (c) about 1 in 3 school leaders noticed an uptick in student fights or physical attacks this past school year.
- Notably, the responses were decidedly mixed. A sizable share of principals reported no change in these latter types of behavior. About 4 in 10 school leaders said the number of student fights remained about the same as in a typical year prior to the pandemic, while just under a third of school leaders saw about the same levels of classroom disruptions.
Clearly, there are many factors embedded in the differences in the number of social, emotional, or behavioral problems noted in the Education Week and Chalkbeat surveys above. But many of the educational leaders responding to the surveys pointed to the importance of a high-quality multi-tiered continuum of social-emotional services and supports for their students.
This continuum typically ranges from:
- Supportive student-staff, student-student, and staff-staff relationships that are anchored by an empathic understanding of and response to the pressures that everyone is feeling;
- Clear behavioral expectations anchored by the fair and equitable use of incentives, consequences, and administrative responses;
- Preschool through high school social skills training, focusing on enhancing students’ interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills; and
- Strategic and/or intensive interventions for students demonstrating significant challenges as provided by skilled mental health staff and support professionals.
Parenthetically, relative to the latter point immediately above, the National Center for Educational Statistics' survey also noted that at least 70% of public schools across the country reported an increase in the number of students seeking mental health services since the start of the Pandemic.
During the school year that just ended, the most common mental health service was individual therapy or intervention— at 84% of our nation’s public schools. While this seems positive, 88% of the schools did not “strongly agree” that they could effectively provide mental health services to all of their students in need. Instead, many schools were providing “case management.”
The three primary reasons for this gap were: (a) insufficient numbers of mental health professionals to meet the caseload; (b) inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals; and (c) inadequate funding. Parenthetically, relative to the latter, there really should not be a funding issue given the federal funds already available to address the Pandemic, as well as the mental health funds in the recently-passed school safety/gun control bill.
Discipline, Disproportionality, and Racial Inequity
The final layer to today’s triangulated discussion comes from a third study, published on July 7, 2022, “New Study: Black, Special Ed Students Punished at Greater Rate Through Pandemic” in the75million.
Confirming that students’ school behavior was more challenging this year, the study found that—even though school suspensions declined overall—the historical trend where Black students and students with disabilities disproportionately received those suspensions continued.
This outcome was based on the already-existing pre-Pandemic data, as well as new longitudinal data—up to and including 2022—from the Atlanta Public Schools. This was supplemented by information and interviews with administrators in other school districts across the country.
In addition to the persistent disproportionality results, the article also noted that:
- Schools must factor in Pandemic-related trauma when evaluating student behavior: Educators must remember that many of these children lost loved ones, survived food and housing insecurity, and endured unprecedented levels of isolation—and, in some cases, abuse—prior to returning to the classroom.
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- Nearly everyone who returned to the classroom this past school year was at a disadvantage. Many experienced teachers started the year still burned out from the virtual/hybrid year before. And many of those new to the profession did their “practice” teaching in the same atypical virtual/hybrid mode or under circumstances (e.g., small group pods) where the classroom management conditions were more controlled and unique.
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- This past year’s school “re-entry process” was “botched.” While students needed greater flexibility and compassion, the academic and discipline “return-to-normal” mindset won out.
According to one administrator, “There is some lip service to social-emotional learning, but the investments don’t meet the needs.”
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- Teachers who had continuous training on how to handle student meltdowns felt less discontented than those did not have this support.
Some teachers were frustrated when they were told what they were supposed to be doing, but were not given the training on how to do it, and the resources to do it well.
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- Some schools reimplemented zero tolerance practices, pushing out students at high rates.
Consistent with the disproportionality data, more Black students and students with disabilities therefore disproportionately missed many more days of instruction at a time when schools were especially focused on catching students up academically.
This added even more stress to these students’ lives—even as many of them had, disproportionately, experienced more negative social, emotional, medical, socio-economic, and home-related adversities due to the Pandemic.
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The disproportionality problem is not new.
It existed well before the Pandemic, and before this past year’s increase in students’ social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. It existed before this past year’s wide variety of student misconduct reports. And it existed before the uptick in school shootings.
But a great present concern is that the current social and political climate may actually exacerbate the disproportionality problem—especially for Black students.
At a time when many educators are hesitant to discuss even legally-legitimate racial issues, inequities, and history, this is exactly what they should be doing—because race and socio-economic conditions are embedded in the three studies described above.
The events involving George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery—symbolically and in reality—paralleled the events of the Pandemic. And yet, many schools are not just providing lip service to their social-emotional learning responses to the Pandemic, their lips are closed—avoiding discussions of the racial root causes of disproportionality.
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In the end, the solutions to disproportionality are ecological and multi-faceted in nature.
But many of these solutions necessarily must occur in the classroom supported by policy, training, coaching, and accountability. For too long, we have ignored the classroom—trying to address disproportionality only at the policy level.
And it has not worked.
As usual, I am writing this Blog while in a plane traveling to a week-long consultation on the West Coast.
I am looking forward to this week because I completed a social-emotional learning/positive behavioral support Needs Assessment with this District a few months ago, and we are taking the “next steps” toward building an infrastructure to address their needs.
Critically, their needs parallel many of the conditions and outcomes reflected in the three studies above.
The District is a high poverty, majority minority district. The different peer groups in the District are at war with one another. And, the schools are desperately trying to “do” social-emotional learning—without fully understanding that they are unintentionally giving lip service to it.
To build the infrastructure, we are spending a full day with different, strategically-selected district and school staff groups with the following intended outcomes:
- Day 1 Theme and Outcomes: Shared Leadership.
The primary outcome, for each school, will be a draft of a school-wide shared leadership Committee Structure involving (up to) six Committees (School Leadership, Curriculum & Instruction, Discipline/School Climate/PBIS/SEL, Professional Development/ Collegial Support, Community/Family Outreach, Multi-Tiered Services) with Committee Co-Chairs and Representative Committee Members that involves all staff in the school and planned monthly meetings.
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- Day 2 Theme and Outcomes: Classroom Behavior Accountability System.
The primary outcome, at the Elementary, Middle School, and High School levels, respectively, will be an integration of all of the District’s current definitions and responses to different student disciplinary infractions into a research-based and developmentally-sensitive blueprint to guide both staff prevention and response—with the goal of facilitating or changing students’ interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and response, and emotional awareness, communication, and coping skills. . . and of decreasing inappropriate and disproportionate discipline referrals to the office and school suspensions.
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- Day 3 Theme and Outcomes: Beginning-of-School-Year Social-Emotional and Behavioral Self-Management/Relationship-Building Activities.
The primary outcome, for each school, will be a calendar with specific activities and responsibilities—focused especially on the first three weeks of the new school year (2022-2023)—that will (begin) (a) to teach students the school/common area and classroom expectations and staff responses; (b) to alert students to the school/district’s academic and social, emotional, and behavioral health resources available to them and how to access them; (c) to build positive and prosocial student-staff-peer relationships—including the prevention and response to teasing, taunting, and bullying (including on social media); and (d) to prepare students for the implementation of the chosen school-wide social skills training processes and/or curricula along a classroom instruction (in their general education classrooms), related services support, and related services involvement continuum.
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- Day 4 Theme and Outcomes: Multi-Tiered Services Procedural Blueprint.
The primary outcome, for the Elementary and Secondary levels, respectively, will be a draft of a functional flow-chart to explicitly guide staff (teacher, related services and support staff, and administrators’) activities, actions, and decisions—from general education to early intervention to compensatory education to special education to school-based or linked community services—relative to a student-focused prevention, strategic intervention, and intensive need service, support, strategy, and intervention continuum.
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- Day 5 Theme and Outcomes: Administrative Leadership Strategic Planning.
The primary outcome will be a debriefing and fine-tuning of the week’s different outcomes, action plans, and commitments that will facilitate the implementation of the “next steps” in those respective plans.
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While I know that some (many) of you are “on vacation,” I still believe that this break is the best time to spend some time thinking about your schools, classrooms, or educational settings. . . and what’s working, what’s not working, and what needs to change during the new school year.
While it may be too late to organize a week-long “summit” this summer as described above, these summits can be done at any time.
If I can help you to toss some ideas around or to flesh out the particulars, feel free to give me a call, or drop me an e-mail. If today’s Blog simply provides you with needed perspective and motivation. . . go for it! and best of luck!