Defining Effective School Discipline in JPS

Jackson Free Press

On May 6, Jackson Public Schools seemed to be suffering from a split personality.

That morning, at Wingfield High School in south Jackson, education advocates and school officials hailed the school for lowering discipline problems by 94 percent between 2013 and 2014 without kicking students out of school. Meanwhile, JPS officials have also beamed about a decrease of 1,000 discipline incidents across the district between last year and the current one.

The afternoon painted a much different picture of discipline in JPS, however. Seated in the chairs that city council members usually occupy, members of the Jackson Federation of Teachers, a labor organization, unveiled their own report, titled "Reclaiming the Promise of Great Public Schools."

The report grew out of a questionnaire JFT circulated among teachers and staff members in JPS that included narratives of unnamed workers who say they were threatened, insulted and harassed by students. A survey revealed that two-thirds of the 1,021 people who responded said their work environment is out of control daily or weekly.

Todd Allen, who teaches history at Wingfield and is a member of JFT, believes JPS' reaction to the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon, where kids who get pushed out of school end up in the criminal-justice system, was a "pendulum swing—from over-policing to under-policing."

"I just don't think there was a major revival that caused 90 percent of students to improve their behavior," Allen said during the city hall press conference.

In January 2014, a letter from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice advised elementary and high schools on how to address discipline issues without discriminating on the bases of race, ethnicity or national origin. In JPS, 23 percent of all black students received at least one out-of-school suspension between 2011 and 2012, according to the Classmates Not Cellmates report. "Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions," the letter states.

Thena Robinson-Mock, project director of the Advancement Project's Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Campaign, said restorative justice has caught fire in the past five years as data of its effectiveness have improved. "Initially, when people thought restorative practices, they had this image of something that seemed touchy feely, that felt too soft for dealing with some of the real issues and needs that students were bringing into the classroom," Robinson-Mock told the Jackson Free Press in a telephone interview. "What we know now is that there is a science to sitting down with young people, talking to all parties in a conflict and finding out what's going on. It's not just hand-holding—what it is, is the opposite of zero tolerance."

From the view of JFT members, JPS should have a zero-tolerance policy, at least when it comes to assault on staff members, and there should be strict adherence to district policies and state law for certain behaviors.

The teachers say that another ineffective tool is the district's Positive Behaviors Interventions and Supports, or PBIS program, mandated in 2007. The idea behind PBIS is that all district personnel, including bus drivers, front-office support staff and top administrators, would receive training on how to reward students for good behavior with praise or prizes, but JPS has not implemented whole-school training.

She suggested that schools should also examine their security budgets to determine whether resources can be freed up and redirected to things like professional development. "We can't improve academics if we have a negative school climate where kids are getting kicked out, where it's highly punitive," she said.

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