School to Prison Pipeline Trauma Zero Tolerance and School Discipline

Rules for Engagement: The Collateral Damage of School Discipline…and What to Do About It


Journalist Jane Stevens has a remarkable website that only experts seem to know about but that deserves a very wide readership among those who care about…well….kids, and certainly those who care about education. It’s called Aces Too High, and it’s about the affect that adverse childhood experiences-–AKA “ACE” AKA childhood trauma—have on education, and school discipline issues, and, of course, the way and the reasons why kids intersect with the juvenile justice system.

In this article by Stevens, titled The secret to fixing school discipline problems? Change the behavior of adults,” she explains—probably better than I’ve yet seen it done elsewhere—-the affect of zero tolerance discipline policies, and the profoundly positive changes that occur in schools and school districts, when the adults running things figure out that suspensions and expulsions aren’t good solutions to anything.

Here’s a large explanatory clip:

A sea change is coursing slowly but resolutely through this nation’s K-12 education system. More than 23,000 schools out of 132,000 nationwide have or are discarding a highly punitive approach to school discipline in favor of supportive, compassionate, and solution-oriented methods. Those that take the slow-but-steady road can see a 20% to 40% drop in suspensions in their first year of transformation. A few — where the principal, all teachers and staff embrace an immediate overhaul — experience higher rates, as much as an 85% drop in suspensions and a 40% drop in expulsions. Bullying, truancy, and tardiness are waning. Graduation rates, test scores and grades are trending up.

The formula is simple, really: Instead of waiting for kids to behave badly and then punishing them, schools are creating environments in which kids can succeed. “We have to be much more thoughtful about how we teach our kids to behave, and how our staff behaves in those environments that we create,” says Mike Hanson, superintendent of Fresno (CA) Unified School District, which began a district-wide overhaul of all of its 92 schools in 2008.

This isn’t a single program or a short-term trend or a five-year plan that will disappear as soon as the funding runs out. Where it’s taken hold, it’s a don’t-look-back, got-the-bit-in-the-teeth, I-can’t-belieeeeeve-we-used-to-do-it-the-old-way type of shift.

The secret to success doesn’t involve the kids so much as it does the adults: Focus on altering the behavior of teachers and administrators, and, almost like magic, the kids stop fighting and acting out in class. They’re more interested in school, they’re happier and feel safer.

Then Stevens gets into the really good stuff… about the effect of trauma on kids’ behavior, and…well, just read it.

“You can’t punish a behavior out of a kid,” says Jen Caldwell, a social worker at El Dorado Elementary School in San Francisco, CA. “The old-school model of discipline comes from people who think kids intentionally behave badly.”

Joseph Arruda, learning director at Reedley High School in Reedley, CA, shakes his head: “Suspending, expelling….that’s the old way.”



As we’ve mentioned earlier, Radio and PBS host Tavis Smiley has new PBS special that focuses on some of the same school-to-prison-pipeline topics that Stevens talks about above.

WLA’s own Matt Fleischer interviewed Smiley for FishbowlLA about the special titled Education Under Arrest, and Smiley talked about how the filming got to him emotionally:

….We spoke to Smiley last week, and he said this topic had left him emotionally drained in a way he had never experienced before in his more than two decades in the media.

“This is one of the most emotional pieces of work I’ve really done,” he tells FishbowlLA. “This has never happened before, but I had to stop camera at one point because I started crying. We had to take a break. I couldn’t keep it together.”

Smiley says it was the story of Kenyatta and Kennisha–sisters from New Orleans who were expelled from their charter high school for fighting after one was jumped and the other attempted to come to her rescue–that left him particularly raw.

“Both girls end up penalized because there is no gray area for adults to make decisions about these issues. They were both almost perfect 4.0 students. To see these two girls, as bright and full of life as can be, treated in a punitive and pejorative way, I had to stop camera because I started crying.”

“Bad things do happen to good people. I understand that. But I couldn’t wrap my head around why the adults in this situation couldn’t have figured out a better way to handle it.”

The special aired Tuesday night, and it’s terrific. It will re-air on PBS-OC on Sunday. Or you can watch it online here.

Matt talks more extensively to Tavis Smiley here.


ED Week’s Ross Brenneman has a rundown on yet one more excellent show dealing with this new wave in education. Here’s a clip:

At Washington Metropolitan High School, in the District of Columbia, many students struggle to keep going. The alternative school for at-risk youth features a litany of the toughest problems schools have to cope with: Chronic absenteeism, dropouts, violence, teenage pregnancy, suspension, tight budgets, and an ongoing challenge to meet adequate yearly progress.

In an ambitious project, a film crew went into D.C. Met for the entirety of the 2011-12 school year to give a broad picture of what a school in dire straits faces. The result, “180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School,” debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET on PBS, with the other half showing tomorrow night.

“180 Days” gives a sweeping view of the climate inside alternative urban schools, starting with the school’s principal, Tanishia Minor, and moving out from there. The crew went into the high school every single day, and if the four-hour finished product seems expansive, it ultimately focuses on the difficulty of keeping a school together, let alone making it academically proficient.

“In these parts, we know these kids are walking in with these deficits, and every second counts,” Minor says.

The climate almost demands failure. When a student gets a great scholarship to college, they put the good news on the sign in front of the school….

As with Tavis Smiley, the producers of this show also came away changed by the experience of making the documentary:

“It was completely transformative. I think it changed all of our views on education,” said coordinating producer Alexis Aggrey, after the screening. “I think it made us feel, after we shot it and going through all the footage, we just feel like this piece was going to be bigger than what we expected it to be, and I think it lends a voice to this conversation that wouldn’t have normally been captured.”

It aired in LA Tuesday night, check listings here for future airings.

Photo: still shot from broadcast of Tavis Smiley special, “Education Under Arrest”

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