Adults were the ones listening to students teach this week as Memphis student advocates shared their recommendations on how to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
Six students at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school, worked for months on suggestions for Shelby County Schools leaders that they believe will lead to safer schools, more engaged students, and more academic success.
The students have already spurred district action: The school board ordered a feasibility study for free city bus passes for high school students after hearing from the group in December that transportation was a barrier to getting to school, jobs, and after-school activities. After learning of the students’ efforts, district leaders wanted to hear more.
The latest recommendations include eliminating suspensions and expulsions for elementary school students, starting morning group check-ins with teachers, paying more attention to character building, and creating rooms designated for students to sort out conflict and regroup before misbehavior escalates.
All the students in Brothers and Sisters Speaking Out for Change were once in juvenile detention and have been trained in advocacy by the nonprofit BRIDGES and mentors from the University of Memphis law school.
“We have seen firsthand the school-to-prison pipeline” and want to be “a resource to our community leaders designing solutions,” the students recited from their purpose statement.
The students presented their recommendations to a group of about a dozen district and community leaders Monday at their school library. Armed with brochures outlining their objectives and statistics on student discipline in Shelby County Schools, the adults rotated among four tables where students went deeper into each recommendation.
As discussion swelled on each of their suggestions, district officials took notes and read back what they heard, running through scenarios they’ve encountered in schools to see how each would benefit students.
Shelby County Schools has vowed to incorporate more student voices into decisions, especially after hundreds of students walked out of class last April as part of a national movement for safer schools following a mass shooting at a Florida high school last year.
JB Blocker, the district’s manager of equity and discipline, was impressed with the recommendations, and told the students that adults often forget to include student perspectives in their decisions.
“And so… let me be clear: The things that you young individuals said today were the exact same things that grown degreed people say,” he said.
The district has made progress in reducing suspensions, but expulsions are up, meaning students are kicked out of their schools longer, an average of 106 days last year. District leaders have encouraged principals to use progressive discipline, which ensures teachers and administrators try multiple strategies to improve behavior before resorting to an out-of-school suspension. That can include phone calls home, a meeting with a school counselor, discussing what led to the misbehavior, and crafting a plan with incentives to change the behavior.
Another strategy could involve including mentors in decision making when students get in trouble, said Aveion Wilson, a junior at Carver Academy. Mentors might be teachers, community members, or central office staff who would meet regularly with the student.
Students often don’t have anyone to bounce things off of or talk things through, Wilson said. “They don’t have anyone to talk to, they don’t have anyone to guide them or vent their emotions out towards.”
Some schools are utilizing more in-school suspensions, but it’s not often effective, the students said. The students instead suggested that in-school suspension monitors be trained in conflict resolution to help students reflect on their behavior and decisions while under the care of monitors.
Many of the student recommendations were rooted in Project STAND, a federally funded program at Carver Academy for students transitioning back to school after juvenile detention. Currently, there are 66 students in the program. Some, like Terrion Anderson, a senior, choose to stay at the academy after they complete their required time.
“I’m glad to come to this school because it has changed me,” he said. “I want that to be happening at other schools, not just this school.”
The students described being labeled “problems” as early as second grade. That label perpetuated a high level of scrutiny from teachers, they said, making them feel like they couldn’t get a clean slate.
Patrick Johnson, a senior at Carver Academy, said that’s why it’s paramount that district officials find alternatives to suspensions and expulsions for elementary students.
“If you expel or suspend an elementary student, they will miss out on the basic math and reading that they need,” he said. “So, if they don’t learn the basic math and reading that they need to go on, why should they even move on to the next level?”
At least one district official at the meeting agreed. Conversations about student discipline can’t be separate from early literacy, said Kelvin Hart, who is with the office for Student Equity Enrollment & Discipline, also known as SEED. About a quarter of Shelby County Schools third-graders are reading on grade level, based on state tests.
“Their mind is not developed,” Hart said, adding the same is true for older students. Students can’t learn if they aren’t in the classroom. “When you’re absent … you fall behind.”
Althea Greene, the only school board member present Monday, praised the students for their recommendations. A district liaison with the board said the students would be invited to continue the discussion with school board members later this month.
“You all will hear from us again. I hope we will take this back and execute it,” she said.
Bernard Williams, a juvenile court official working to reduce racial disparities in the county’s justice system, also invited the students to share more of their experiences and advise the court “on how to possibly redo juvenile justice.” The court was under federal oversight in recent years for mistreatment of youth, especially black boys. That oversight was lifted late last year before all the benchmarks were met. Some Memphians are worried the court will not continue its reforms.
“Oftentimes we do not listen to you guys enough. We sit in boardrooms and we meet, and meet, and meet,” Williams told the students. “Your insight is very powerful.”
Below is the full list of the students’ recommendations in their own words:
See our lives now as relevant
- Connect us to job opportunities through giving access to tests like the National Career Readiness Certificate Test.
- Don’t just college-track us all. Some of us want to learn more hands-on skills that will more quickly connect us with stability for our lives.
Don’t give up on your students
- Don’t suspend and expel elementary school students.
- Offer a chance for people to reflect at the beginning of the in-school suspension process (not at the end), and to have one-on-one check-ins with the monitor during the in-school suspension.
Treat us like people
- Reset rooms.
- Morning check-ins.
- Check-ins with our families.
Create intentional spaces for mentorship
- Have students identify mentors in the first months of school. If a student gets in trouble, have a policy that requires administrators to call the student’s mentor, and give the mentor and the student a chance to talk.
- Hire people from the community to be trained in restorative justice and to monitor the halls. This will create more mentors in the school who come from the same background as us, and who will see us outside of school and really understand us.