The Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice is pushing for some major changes in how discipline is doled out in Georgia’s public schools. The recommendations come on the heels of the Atlanta-based non-profit organization’s release last month of its final student discipline report titled Effective School Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class. The first phase of the report featured an analysis of discipline reports from a cross-section of school districts. The final report features a more in-depth data analysis and interviews with representatives from the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) district and school personnel and other stakeholders. Surveys were also distributed to parents, students and teachers at Parent Teacher Associations and other community organizations statewide.
An interim first phase of the report released in June 2010 found that students of color, poor students and students with learning disabilities were given out-of-school suspensions (OSS) at a higher rate than other students. The latest findings suggest that there is great room for improvement. JJIE.org’s Chandra R. Thomas spoke to Rob Rhodes, the organization’s director of legal affairs who is overseeing the study, for more insight into the results.
JJIE: Let’s start from the beginning. How was this analysis executed?
RHODES: Phase one of the report began in January 2010 and included the submission of a public records request to the Georgia DOE. We initially got the data in a limited way. They gave it to us in redacted form, but we couldn’t go back to a student identifier. That kept us from making some analysis so we reached out to them again and said that we would like to do a more sophisticated analysis. To do that, we needed to be able to go back to information on each student. They gave us the data but we had to sign a confidentiality agreement that includes measures to assure that individual student information is not disclosed. We are not allowed to share what school districts were included in our analysis. We were able to analyze seven years worth of data from the 2003-2004 school years to the 2009-2010 school years. We hope to get the 2010-2011 school year information soon. The Atlanta office of a national accounting firm, that wishes to remain anonymous, provided for us pro bono the data management system that we used. They managed and analyzed the data in response to our request for specific analysis.
JJIE: What’s is your ultimate goal for the report’s findings?
RHODES: We’re committed to not having one of those studies that are released and have a short 15 minutes of fame and then they go on the shelf and collect dust. We are committed to this study having a long-term impact. In an ideal world, we hope to create a searchable database that would make this information accessible to district and school personnel, parents, students and other community stakeholders. We want our database to become an ongoing community resource. We hope to keep it up to date and accessible.
JJIE: What do you want to come of the results?
RHODES: We collaborated with a lot of folks on this effort. We are proposing a few legislative changes. We want this to be a catalyst for change. One priority is amending the school disruption statute. This law prohibits disruptive behavior on school grounds or on school buses etc. We believe the law was intended to protect children from the acts of outsiders, but now the law is often used against students who act out as a basis for referring them to juvenile court. There’s a lot of criminalization of student behavior in our schools now.
We want the law modified so that it does not apply to student behavior because it allows far too many kids to be brought into juvenile court for matters that can and should be handled by the schools. We would like to work with the Georgia DOE about some policy changes regarding the reporting process for disciplinary actions taken on students. We found that a large number of incidents are not specifically identified in reports. Many are checked off as “other” in report forms filed. The lack of specificity in classifying the incidents for which students are disciplined or placed in in-school or out-of-school suspension is problematic.
It allows different parties to draw a broad number of conclusions about what actually happened in that incident. We are pushing for more specific incident codes that will allow for more of an opportunity to figure out the specific nature of the incidents that occur. Basic fairness requires that the actions that trigger potential discipline should be well defined so that students can modify their behavior. We found in our analysis that a lot of students are disciplined for minor incidents. Many prohibited acts are subjective and based largely on the perspective of the administrator.
JJIE: So is OSS a bad disciplinary practice?
RHODES: We’re not into the one-size fits all approach to discipline. There needs to be different sizes, if you will. You can’t apply the same solution to all problems. Our view is that the use of OSS or other exclusionary disciplinary practices should be a last resort after other methods are tried. Our basic thrust is that we believe that there should be more options than OSS for dealing with disciplinary issues in schools. We also think that school-wide climate programs dealing with behavioral problems will go a long way with stopping problems before they happen.
JJIE: What is “school climate” and why is it important?
RHODES: We support the Positive Behavioral and Intervention and Support model (PBIS). Essentially it entails from the principal down to the food service worker being committed to setting a school wide climate. It’s an overall approach and attitude that includes pride in the school, self-respect and positive reinforcement. Implementing this model requires that detailed discipline and other data be collected and analyzed on an ongoing basis. A lot of data has to be collected beforehand about what’s already happening in the school. The only way to identify problems going on in the school is to look at what patterns that the data shows. There are about 250 schools in the state implementing this model now. The preliminary data suggests that there’s been a positive response to it.
JJIE: What are some of the findings you discovered early on?
RHODES: The more kids get excluded from class it has an impact on their ability to graduate. The report showed that school districts with higher than average OSS rates tended to have graduation rates that are consistently lower than the state average and significantly lower than the graduation rates of school districts with low OSS rates in the seven-year period studied. It’s important to note that the fact that there’s a correlation doesn’t mean its causation. We’re not saying that if you reduced OSS it automatically would improve graduation rates, but it certainly is a factor. One recommendation that we make is that schools be required to provide OSS and expulsion records broken down by race and other identifying factors. We want students and parents to be able to have access to that information. That involves self-collaboration to make changes.
JJIE.org: How does your organization seek to achieve the changes that are suggested?
RHODES: We intend to reach out to the Georgia DOE to make recommendations for change. We want to talk with them and have some dialogue. We are a fact-driven organization that seeks to affect policy and legislative change. Our goal is collaborative advocacy. There are about three or four things that we are recommending that require legislative action in addition to the amendment of the disruption statute. One is transparent disclosure of student discipline data [that protects student identities] by all school districts. Now they are reported internally, but that information is not easily accessible to the public in most school districts. We want this information reported much in the same ways that AYP status (Annual Yearly Progress) and CRCT test scores are reported.
JJIE: What are some other changes that your report pushes for?
RHODES: When a student is placed in OSS for 10 days or longer they have a hearing, which is sometimes called a tribunal. Sometimes the student wants witnesses to speak on his or her behalf at this hearing. The school board issues a subpoena to those witnesses, but it’s not enforceable by law. So basically that person can ignore the subpoena. We want that changed so that it is enforceable. We’re also calling for sufficient funds to be given to schools across the state to implement school climate programs. This would be money available for schools that want to implement this. It would give them the funds to do it.
JJIE: You say you don’t want this report to sit on a shelf and collect dust. What is your organization doing to get the word out about this?
RHODES: I’m prepared to be a road warrior! I am committed over the next year to meeting with community leaders and other stakeholders regarding the results of this study. My personal goal is to have 3,000 “touches” over the next 12 months. I have a PowerPoint presentation and a charming demeanor and I’m ready to travel!