Leader Blues

Saturday, September 16, 2006

TOP STORY>>Easing up on discipline

IN SHORT: PCSSD hopes new rules will answer critics that black students are treated more harshly than whites.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District will lighten up on disciplining elementary school students for infractions outside their ability to control, such as coming to school late, according to Brenda Bowles, executive director of equity and pupil services at the district.

By doing that and drawing up discipline management plans (DMP) for individual schools, the district hopes to attack the discipline disparity between black and white students at its schools.

Because black students are disciplined disproportionately to their enrollment in district schools, the U.S. District Court’s Office of Desegrega-tion Monitoring (ODM) has prompted the district to make important changes.

In a recent report by the ODM, it found that while 43 percent of PCSSD secondary school students were black in the 2004-2005 school year, they accounted for 71 percent of all students expelled and 59 percent of students suspended.
ODM staff was sharply critical of the district’s failure to bring more equity into discipline.

“The PCSSD let several opportunities to improve discipline slip away,” according to the report. “With each initiative, one could feel like Charlie Brown and Lucy…each time, at the last minute, just as he (seems ready to get) a good kick off, she pulls the football away. So it has been with the PCSSD.”

In its Plan 2000, the district failed to develop surveys, formulas, computer programs and a district-wide discipline management plan, according to the report.

“DMPs were ineffective and not updated; and the discipline committee was left with no leadership and, in effect, ceased to operate,” according to the report.

Part of the problem was “a real mismatch between the neighborhood culture and the school culture,” according to Homer Smith, of the ODM. “It’s the district’s responsibility to make sure they’ve removed barriers to fairness,” said Smith, instead of “ruling kids out.”

The district needs to provide an outside intervention team, perhaps from UALR or elsewhere, to help in problem areas, according to Margie Powell, an associate ODM monitor.

“We need to look at the schools as individual units and stop using the cookie cutter,” said Powell.
“(The district has) cut the counseling staff at critical time,” said Powell, at a time needed for students and teachers if you ask me.”
Now students are sharing counselors — there might not even be one at the school when needed.

“Students need continuity,” she said, “not a bunch of administrators with no history with the case.”

The cuts in counselors and socials workers is in response to the state’s requirement that the district cut its costs and get off the fiscal distress list, and the state has approved those cuts.

Part of the problem in the past may have been the turnover of superintendents and the churning of top administrators.
At one time the director of equity was on sick leave and his assistant was gone.

“There was no one to pick up the mantle,” said Powell.

That responsibility now has fallen to Bowles, who said that the district has required each individual school to devise its own discipline management plan, incorporating standard expectations but customizing its student needs.

In the past, students, particularly elementary school students, have been penalized for things beyond their control, such as getting to school late, having dirty clothes, having head lice or failing to have pencil and paper.

Such violations were lumped under the catchall “failure to follow school rules,” said Bowles.

Students could be routinely warned, then suspended for such minor infractions, putting them behind in class and labeled as troublemakers.

After two suspensions, a student is expelled.

Bowles said the teachers and principals went through in-service training to help them develop a discipline management plan and that the district was working with schools where the plans fall short.

But discipline is the responsibility of everyone, not just the principals.

Teachers will work with citizenship skills, Bowles said. “They may not already know how to act.”

She said teachers, counselors and administrators need to get involved, to work with parents when necessary and to clean uniforms or find clean ones for youngsters, Bowles said.