New school discipline program finding success in Middle Georgia

FORSYTH -- Mary Persons High School suspended Quinntavais Chesney five times during his freshman year.

“I used to get into a lot of trouble,” Chesney said, “being disrespectful to teachers, fighting, arguing, stuff like that.”

He ran into major trouble late in his junior year and faced expulsion for bullying a female student.

But Monroe County school officials looked at Chesney’s record and noticed he had demonstrated academic and behavioral improvement before the incident, so they gave him a second chance after he apologized for what he did.

This year, Chesney is graduating from Mary Persons High, and last semester he earned the school’s “180 award” for turning himself around.

The change in his trajectory coincided with a change in the culture at his school. Instead of focusing on the small percentage of students acting out, Mary Persons is now committed to focusing on students meeting high expectations, Principal Jim Finch said.

The school’s “180 award” and other positive behavior reward systems were developed in the last two years as part of a discipline framework used nationally called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support.

“It changed our way of thinking,” Finch said.

The Monroe County school district was one of the first in Middle Georgia to implement the program, but state officials are guiding other districts in expanding its use. The hope is that the data-driven plan will help reduce disciplinary incidents and save countless instructional hours lost in schools.

Suspensions across the midstate

Students in Bibb, Houston, Peach and Monroe counties lost more than 4,300 days of classroom instruction to suspensions during the 2011-12 academic year, according to recently released data from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. Also, black students were disproportionately affected by suspensions in each county.

The agency received enrollment and discipline data from all 97,000 schools in the country for that school year and released it in a searchable online database.

There were 3,422 students suspended at least one time in Bibb County in 2011-12. Black students made up almost 73 percent of the district’s enrollment but represented 87 percent of students receiving at least one suspension. Put another way, nearly one out of every six black students received a suspension that year.

And though Houston gave out suspensions to only 404 students in 2011-12 despite serving more students than Bibb, black students represented almost 67 percent of the students receiving suspensions despite representing less than 36 percent of the district’s enrollment.

The trend was the same in Monroe and Peach counties.

Meanwhile, the number of suspensions in the four counties increased in the 2012-13 school year, according to data that Bibb, Houston, Monroe and Peach counties released to The Telegraph.

Last year, 4,036 students received out-of-school suspensions in Bibb public schools. Meanwhile, 806 students received suspensions in all of Houston during the same time frame.

Black students disproportionately affected

Shaun Harper visited Atlanta in March to speak at a White House summit on black male success hosted by Morehouse College. He grew up in Thomasville and said he vividly recalls how black students there were disciplined in disproportionate numbers.

“I was one of them,” Harper said when reached by phone.

Teachers gave him good grades in core areas but gave him “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” marks in conduct because he talked too much. Harper said he wasn’t being bad on purpose but was tapping into the curiosity that has helped him reach success in the academic world.

“I guess my teachers wanted to suppress that,” he said.

Harper has a doctorate in higher education and is executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published several books on the subject of black students in education and offered a cultural explanation for why they are more likely to be suspended than students from other ethnic groups.

“Teachers bring with them cultural assumptions to the classroom and to the children they interact with,” Harper said. “Over 80 percent of teachers in public schools are white, and the overwhelming majority of them are white women.”

Negative portrayals of black people in media and teacher training programs that focus on the deficits of black students contribute to racial biases held by teachers, whether they know it or not, Harper said.

“I’m not saying teachers themselves are knowingly racist,” Harper said. “What I’m saying is the assumptions they bring into the classroom are racist.”

Steve Smith, the Bibb County school system’s interim superintendent, said he doesn’t disagree with Harper’s analysis, but he said the bigger problem for his district is poverty in the community.

Still, Smith said teachers who graduated from teaching programs in the last 10 years are better equipped to address the needs of students who live in poverty and have a better understanding of cultural differences than the teachers who came before them. And because school districts in the last 10 years have embraced the use of data gathering, they also are better equipped to identify groups that are lagging and begin to address inequity.

Smith took over the superintendent’s position in June 2013, and although he said he did not have time to overhaul the district’s approach to discipline, it is an issue he would recommend his successor continue to work on.

“Discipline needs to be brought under better control,” he said.

Race is not what is looked at when teachers and administrators in Houston County discipline students. It’s the behavior they are displaying, said Cynthia Flesher, Houston County’s assistant superintendent for school operations.

Flesher rejected the idea that educators may be demonstrating unconscious racial biases, but she allowed that despite better guidelines and levels of discipline, consistency can always be improved to ensure that behavior is appropriately addressed for all students.

“We constantly work on making sure we are all consistent in how we view behaviors and how we discipline behaviors, regardless of the color of the child,” she said. “Consistency is what we strive for in a lot of what we do but especially in regard to discipline.”

Effects of suspensions

It is no surprise that students who are suspended miss instructional time and fall behind on course work, but they also become less bonded to their school, said Anne Gregory, an associate professor at Rutgers University.

“We know school bonding as a psychological concept is very important and linked to graduation and achievement,” said Gregory, who is an expert on ways schools can reduce issues of racial disparity in discipline.

Gregory pointed to a study of more than 180,000 students of all races in Florida by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. They looked at the students’ record of behavior in ninth grade and tracked them through college to measure outcomes. Students who received one suspension in ninth grade went on to graduate high school at a 52 percent rate. If they received two suspensions, students graduated at a 38 percent rate.

Another study of 11 school districts in Texas broke down what offenses triggered suspensions for students and found that most were suspended for violations of district codes of conduct, or misbehavior that includes public displays of affection, scuffling, horseplay, tardiness, cellphone use and defiance.

In Bibb County’s Code of Conduct, there are levels of outcomes based on levels of misconduct. Throwing paper or dress code violations are classified as level I and could lead to a written or verbal warning. Level V is reserved for “the most serious acts of misconduct which threatens the safety or well-being of others,” according to the code, and consequences can include long-term suspension and expulsion.

Gregory said research indicates that most suspensions and expulsions are not issued for “zero-tolerance” offenses. There is no breakdown of what type of misbehavior most often triggers suspensions and expulsions in Bibb County, but the Code of Conduct allows for repeated low level infractions to be upgraded to Level V given enough offenses. In theory, this means a student throwing paper or using an inappropriate voice can eventually be suspended or expelled on repeated offenses, “depending on the frequency of the infractions,” Smith said.

Ideally, school districts should work to decrease suspension rates, striving at the same time to increase student engagement and achievement in schools as a whole, Gregory said.

“You don’t want to just reduce suspensions and then have the whole school have lots of safety problems in the hallways or kids not feeling safe,” she said. “You really need to accompany a reduction in suspensions by increasing engagement and motivation and a sense of community.”

Reducing suspensions

The Bibb County school district, the Georgia Department of Education and a nonprofit advocacy group called Georgia Appleseed are working to expand the implementation of Positive Behavior Interventions and Support -- the same discipline framework used at Mary Persons High -- in several Bibb schools starting next fall.

In doing so, Georgia Appleseed wants to help reduce suspension and expulsion rates and encourage positive changes in school climate.

“We’re not running from the data, we’re addressing it,” said Tremaine Reese, director of community operations for Georgia Appleseed.

Reese pointed to Mary Persons as an example of a school that has benefited from incorporating Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support into its discipline plan.

Part of the change in culture involved the Georgia Department of Education helping Mary Persons develop an acronym as a battle cry for its students.

School leaders came up with CHAMP, or Courteous, Honorable, Accountable, Motivated and Prepared. Material with the acronym is posted all over school hallways and inside classrooms. Students caught living up to the CHAMP ideals are acknowledged during afternoon announcements, and days are scheduled throughout the year when they are rewarded.

Though Mary Persons doesn’t have a dramatic discipline problem -- 126 students received at least one suspension in 2012-13 and 81 did so in 2011-12 -- the push since the program was implemented during the 2012-13 school year has been to address the biggest behavioral issue it did have: students arriving late to class.

“We want our kids in school in class every day learning for as long as possible,” said Julie Bazemore, a 25-year veteran teacher of the school.

Finch said CHAMP and the new discipline framework helped reduce the number of tardiness infractions received by students from 6,555 in 2011-12 to 3,178 in 2012-13.

Chesney, the Mary Persons High senior, said CHAMP made a difference for him.

Though he faced long odds in recovering from multiple suspensions and remaining on track to graduate, he also credits teachers who refused to let him fail and helped him catch up.

He recently took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and scored in the 98th percentile, making him attractive to recruiters.

“For what I want to do and for what my standards are now, I chose the Marines,” he said.

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 256-9751.