During Brittany Scherer’s first year teaching at Arlington High School, she remembers a boy who got suspended for a couple days when, in frustration, he blew up at a teacher.
While he was out of school, he broke into a home and was arrested.
He never returned to eighth grade.
“If he would’ve been in school, he wouldn’t ever have had the chance to break into a house at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday,” Scherer, 25, said. “That’s what really sparked my interest in getting involved with discipline…the kid got frustrated and made some poor choices, but that could’ve been defused.”
Indiana has been recently identified in national studies as a state that suspends and expels students at high rates. Among the concerns about that reality is whether it leads to higher incidences of crime and lower graduation rates. Black students and students with special needs especially, the research says, are removed from school for discipline incidents at a much higher rate than other students.
Part of the problem might lie in how data on discipline is collected, or it might be connected to trends in discipline methods that take a harder line with students who misbehave.
But new legislation passed this year by the Indiana General Assembly aims to better understand those trends and encourage schools to use more effective discipline strategies — at least in Marion County.
House Bill 1635, authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, and inspired by bills written by Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, and Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, will require schools within the county to report discipline data — including suspensions, dropouts and expulsions — separated by race, grade, gender, eligibility for special education services and whether the students are from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Before now, no Indiana schools were required to break discipline numbers down into those student groups.
The bill also provides grants for schools across the state that want to train staff in discipline practices that don’t rely on suspension and expulsion, but instead focus on creating more positive school environments and better relationships between students, teachers and administrators.
Behning said that although the entire state isn’t required to disaggregate discipline data, he thinks this start in Marion County will help answer some questions about why black students, and black boys in particular, are disproportionately affected. Then, expansion of the requirements to other parts of the state could be a next step, he said.
“We’ve got to walk before we can run,” Behning said. “If the data shows what we think it will in Marion County, perhaps we can go statewide next year and in the next biennium.”
Serious discipline far more likely for black students
According to data from The Equity Project, which studies disparities in discipline at Indiana University, black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than other students nationally.
That number is especially relevant when the total number of black students in any given school is considered, said Russ Skiba, director of The Equity Project. At a meeting focused on discipline earlier this month, Skiba said black students comprise 12 percent of students in the state, but almost 40 percent of all suspensions and expulsions.
Gwen Kelley, also with The Equity Project, said those kinds of statistics prove a need for more conversations about discipline and race — even if people don’t want to have them.
“We’re seeing with discipline that no one really wants to talk about race, but race is a critical piece,” Kelley said. “What we need to do is look through a lens to see if the expulsions and suspensions and removal from classroom, if there is a connection between how people are perceiving students, and are they being dismissed and put out for the same things that other students, white students, are being put out for.”
Like lawmakers, those working at The Equity Project see data as an important avenue for making changes to how discipline works in the state.
JauNae Hanger, attorney and president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, said transparent and public data reporting will eventually lead to better school policies. For example, schools often use the nebulous “other” category to classify disciplinary incidents.
Data is critical to understanding why some students are disciplined more than others, she said.
And Kelley said she expects the data will show what experts in discipline already think is true — that making kids leave the classroom, rather than working to figure out what the underlying problems are that are influencing their behavior, doesn’t fix the situation.
“Sometimes, the kids really aren’t the problem,” Hanger said. “There’s so many doors that can be opened when you start to analyze (data), but we’ve got to move there. Our data says we are relying way too much on a very harsh discipline that ultimately leads to kids failing in school, and we don’t want that.”
Does zero tolerance go too far?
Scherer is now teaching at the KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School, part of a network of schools across the nation known for its tough “no excuses” discipline policy.
But her philosophy on discipline aligns more closely to a model called “Positive Behavior Intervention and Support,” which is essentially a response to a zero-tolerance policy that treats all infractions the same — and often, harshly.
For example, many zero-tolerance policies prohibit weapons of any kind in school and don’t always factor in a student’s intentions or differences in deciding the severity of the infraction. A kid who forgot to remove pepper spray from his backpack after visiting family in an unfamiliar neighborhood might be treated just as harshly as one who brought a gun to school with harmful intentions.
With a positive behavior model, it’s more important to get at the root cause for the outburst and to appropriately mete out consequences for bad behavior when it is warranted. The model says schools need to let students know what the expectations for behavior are, and it teaches that applying a blanket rule doesn’t make sense. The student with the gun should have a much more severe punishment than the student with the pepper spray.
Scherer said she tries to focus on relationship-building and classroom management, not punishment. She tries to really understand how her kids are feeling when things go wrong, rather than just reacting in a stressful situation. It could be as simple as letting a student get a drink or take a few minutes to cool off.
“If a kid is getting defiant, I can get snippy, or I can turn this into, ‘What’s going on, why is your head down?’” she said. “One little situation could turn from a kid getting a drink of water to escalating.”
KIPP is beginning to offer more training for teachers about ways they can better manage their students’ behavior rather than resorting directly to punishment, Scherer said.
At Indianapolis Public Schools, a district also trying to change how it disciplines students, behavioral specialist Cynthia Jackson sees these methods as an extension of classroom teaching and teamwork.
“It’s about prevention,” Jackson said. “It’s based also on a team. Discipline becomes a tool, not the whole system.”
Hanger said positive behavior training helps everyone. Teachers learn how to respond to kids who come from different backgrounds and might need further counseling, and students aren’t pushed out of school — making it less likely they’ll drop out, commit crimes and end up in prison.
In the classroom, it might mean simple changes at first, Scherer said. She gets her kids special treats on their birthdays and makes sure to call every student’s home during the first week of school to introduce herself and tell parents or guardians something good that happened with their child.
That way, she said, if something bad happens and parents need to be involved, there’s already a foundation there. By making the effort early on, Scherer can ensure not only parents’ trust, but trust from her students as well.
“As a teacher, I can’t control what’s going on with you right now,” Scherer said. “But I can control the way I approach you, which obviously affects the way you interact with me.”
It takes time to get schools, teachers and districts on board with new policies, said Kelley, the researcher with The Equity Project. Sometimes it means more money, she said, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But this new law is a good step toward improvement, she said, because it makes more resources available and encourages state officials, as well as classroom teachers, to get involved.
“Even though we didn’t get everything we wanted in the bill, we got some of the things, and every year we get some of the things,” Kelley said. “It takes the practical piece as well as the policy piece, so it’s driven from the top, but also from the bottom.”