In the wake of the catastrophic Columbine school shooting in 1999, many school district leaders, politicians, and police summed up their response to school violence with two words: zero tolerance.
Infractions that once might have prompted a discussion of motive and intention instead often led to immediate, automatic suspensions, expulsions, and calls to police.
From 2002 to 2011 in Philadelphia, that view held the upper hand; both Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman favored a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline.
In 2012, however, dissatisfaction with the results led to a tectonic shift in policy.
The School District adopted a new discipline code that has more of a case-by-case, individualized approach, with some discretion about consequences for students. Since then, out-of-school suspensions have declined, as have expulsions.
One of the authors of the policy change says that the District is increasingly attuned to the fact that thousands of Philadelphia students have been deeply affected by traumatic childhood events, and these events can play a big role in their behavior.
Jody Greenblatt currently oversees school climate matters for the School District. She is a Stoneleigh Foundation fellow who started working on discipline and school climate issues at the District headquarters in mid-2012.
Greenblatt said in a recent interview that one of the root problems with zero tolerance is that many students with discipline problems have experienced trauma in their lives and need support in a positive setting, not isolation and more rejection.
“With the traumatized child, creating a sense of safety and security is really important,” she said. “They are already in a heightened fight-or-flight stance ... and any change in school environment is not going to promote the feeling of well-being that they badly need.
“You hear over and over [from educators] that behaviors they are seeing are worse and worse every year and are happening in younger and younger children. That’s a direct correlation to the trauma and poverty of an urban environment. I think there has to be a shift in how we address these behaviors ... and it is beginning to happen.”
David Lapp, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, who has represented students facing expulsion, agrees. “There’s a willingness now to ... look at mitigating circumstances and not just blindly say, `This happened; this has to be the consequence,’ but to look at what makes rational sense.
“The leadership of the District has demonstrated a sincere will and commitment to the new direction.”
That “new direction” came out of a years-long battle about zero-tolerance practices.
The latest round began in the fall of 2008, when incoming District Superintendent Ackerman announced a shift in policy toward expelling more students for violent behavior.
The numbers of out-of-school suspensions and students expelled to disciplinary schools soared. Stories surfaced of students suspended or expelled for seemingly minor infractions. Backlogs grew, as cases dragged on for weeks and months. Surprisingly, many of the students being expelled were very young – by far the most were in the elementary and middle school grades.
In 2012, facing growing criticism, the District scrapped the old policy. SRC member Lorene Cary spearheaded the overhaul, which had been sought by student activists and other public school advocates.
The adoption of the new discipline policy is just a first step toward a “trauma-informed” approach to discipline and school climate.
In a school district like Philadelphia, many children experience poverty, hunger, an unstable family life, and street violence outside their doors.
As many as two of every three students have experienced this kind of trauma, said Maura McInerney, also an Education Law Center attorney.
Schools must make an extraordinary effort to understand how children’s’ behavior in the classroom is shaped by what they have gone through, McInerney said. To help them succeed, she said, educators have to undertake a shift in how they look at student behavior. “You don’t say, `What’s wrong with this child!’ You say, ‘What has happened to this child? What did this child experience?’”
And to truly have a “trauma-informed” approach, McInerney said, educators and administrators also have to “ask questions like `Do we need more social workers and guidance counselors? Can we provide more support for teachers who are working with these children?”
And misbehaving children need “a space where they can have a conversation about what happened and talk through an approach or resolution to the situation.”
McInerney added, “It means transforming your school – you’re not going to be pushing [rule-breakers] away; you’re going to find a way to engage them.”
That doesn’t mean adopting a permissive attitude toward disruptive actions.
Greenblatt summed it up this way: “In a positive school climate, the norms and expectations are really clear and if they break those norms, they know what the consequences are. ... Behavior is addressed by the staff in a way that does not ostracize the student, but instead takes into account the child’s background and gives the student a voice to talk about what happened. And the consequence deals with the behavior.”
That is also the view of Kelley Hodge, the state-appointed safe schools advocate for the District. The role of the advocate is to be an independent monitor of District violence reporting practices and an advocate for victims. Hodge also describes herself as a big proponent of prevention strategy – “It works.”
She said that a trauma-informed approach to discipline and school climate “gives teachers and administrators another set of tools,” whereas zero-tolerance disciplinary system is “more reactive.”
Factoring in the role of trauma in disruptive behavior helps teachers and administrators “relate in a better way to the young people they are working with every day,” Hodge said.
Greenblatt said that approach is being implemented on the ground.
Hundreds of principals, teachers, administrators, and the District’s disciplinary hearing officers have attended training sessions to make them aware of the effects of trauma on children.
Grants are currently funding programs in more than three dozen schools that are addressing discipline and school climate issues by building a positive, supportive environment. The District just received a $3.5 million federal grant that will add 28 more schools to that list over the next five years.
McInerney said another positive step was the decision this school year to add 27 Department of Human Services social workers in schools that have many students under DHS supervision. And the District is quickly sharing records with outside agencies so that service providers find out about attendance and other problems in a timely way.
Others have also seen improvement.
A few years ago, some Temple and Penn law students formed a group called School Discipline Advocacy Service to provide advocates, if requested, for children in District and charter disciplinary hearings.
“There are cases where we feel there are children getting removed and pushed out into exclusionary discipline far too quickly and for actions that don’t warrant it,” said Ben Fils, a third-year Temple law student who was the group’s head last year. But overall, he said, “The District is heading toward realizing that these students do go through trauma and giving them an opportunity to learn from previous mistakes.”
Mary Kate Kalinich, also a third-year Temple law student, added that administrators are grasping the changes, and now “they will often say, `I don’t have to suspend this kid; I can do a behavioral contract instead.’”
There are obstacles, however. Chief among them are the District’s disastrous financial situation and a test-driven system that evaluates students, administrators, teachers, and schools in large part on state exam scores.
“We know that the student support services side does not have the money and doesn’t have the time” to provide all the help that is needed, Greenblatt said. “That’s because there is a culture out there that is still about the testing. ... Social-emotional learning is a key part of preschool. But when you get to elementary school it stops – it’s all about the academic focus. For younger kids, especially, it should not stop. You teach kids reading and math – you need to teach behavior too.”
There is certainly not enough money in the District’s coffers to accelerate such efforts, Greenblatt added.
But, she said, at least “the conversation is beginning to change.”
The bottom line, she said, is that most School District employees at all levels “want to see children succeed and realize that they are not going to succeed if their social and emotional needs are not met.”