ONTD Political

Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 8

11:56 am - 05/02/2012
THE FIRST TIME THAT principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline. This is how it went down:

A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?” He gets even more specific: “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?”

The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises.” The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: “I shouldn’t have blown up at the teacher.”


And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.

“The kid still got a consequence,” explains Sporleder – but he wasn’t sent home, a place where there wasn’t anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn’t do. He went to ISS — in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk about anything with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.

Before the words “namby-pamby”, “weenie”, or “not the way they did things in my day” start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:

2009-2010 (Before new approach)

798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
50 expulsions
600 written referrals
2010-2011 (After new approach)

135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
30 expulsions
320 written referrals
“It sounds simple,” says Sporleder about the new approach. “Just by asking kids what’s going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away.”


The dark underbelly of school discipline

Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment.

First. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids — 3,328,750, to be exact. Since the 1970s, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, the suspension rate’s nearly doubled for white kids, to 6%. It’s more than doubled for Hispanics to 7%, and to a stunning 15% for blacks. For Native Americans, it’s almost tripled, from 3% to 8%.

Second. If you think all these suspensions are for weapons and drugs, recalibrate. There’s been a kind of “zero-tolerance creep” since schools adopted “zero-tolerance” policies. Only 5% of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs, said the NEPC report, citing a 2006 study. The other 95% were categorized as “disruptive behavior” and “other”, which includes cell phone use, violation of dress code, being “defiant”, display of affection, and, in at least one case, farting.

Third. These suspensions don’t work for schools. Get rid of the “bad” students, and the “good” students can learn, get high scores, live good lives. That’s the myth. The reality? It’s just the opposite. Says the NEPC report: “…research on the frequent use of school suspension has indicated that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.”

Fourth. They don’t work for the kids who get kicked out. In fact, these “throw-away” kids get shunted off a possible track to college and onto the dead-end spur of juvenile hall and prison.

“Studies show that one suspension triples the likelihood of a juvenile justice contact within that year,” California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the California Legislature last month. “And that one suspension doubles the likelihood of repeating the grade.”

Fifth. All these suspensions have led many communities to create “alternative” schools, where they dump the “bad” kids who can’t make it in regular public school. Lincoln High School was set up as one of those alternative schools.

How Mr. Sporleder stumbled across an epiphany in Spokane

It’s the Spring of 2010, and Jim Sporleder’s mind more or less silently exploded.

This is the guy with 25 years experience as a principal. In Walla Walla, he’s got a rep for really connecting with kids. He preaches “discipline with dignity”.

John Medina – a developmental molecular biologist who’s an improbable cross between an old-time rip-snortin’ preacher and Jon Stewart – just drilled a hole in Sporleder’s brain and dropped this in:

Severe and chronic trauma (such as living with an alcoholic parent, or watching in terror as your mom gets beat up) causes toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kid’s brains. When trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible.

Sporleder was three years into an exhausting stint as principal of the Lincoln Alternative School. He’d asked for the position after reading a report about the troubled school. The report quoted a couple of Lincoln High’s kids: “We’re the dumping ground,” one said. “Who cares about us,” another said. It wasn’t a question.

“That report riveted me,” says Sporleder. “I’m a person of faith. I felt called to come over here.”

Gangs controlled the school. It had only 50 students, but they were the toughest in the school system – the kids who’d been kicked out of other schools. Lincoln was their last chance.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” recalls Sporleder. “We had some pretty rough kids. It took me quite a while to get on top of that.”

And then, at the behest of Teri Barila, co-founder of the Children’s Resilience Initiative in Walla Walla, he goes to this meeting where this guy who’s part comedian, part evangelist, part scientist (and best-selling author of Brain Rules) more or less tells him that this “discipline with dignity” stuff is, well, useless. Punishing misbehavior just doesn’t work. You’re simply adding trauma to an already traumatized kid.

“He explained it in lay terms,” says Sporleder. “I got it.”

Now, some people who are well into their careers can’t handle a paradigm shift. It’s overwhelming. That’s mostly because it’s just too much trouble to change the way you do…everything.

Spoiler alert: Sporleder isn’t one of those people.

He returned from Spokane to light a fire under his teachers. He felt compelled to figure out a way to do something different to reach his kids, but wasn’t sure exactly how. Teri Barila was in a perfect position to assist.

The article is too long for an LJ entry, but there's more at the source

shukivengeance 2nd-May-2012 04:32 pm (UTC)
Just goes to show the difference that a bit of compassion can make.
thenakedcat 2nd-May-2012 04:35 pm (UTC)
This is awesome. Seriously.

I remember all too well how zero-tolerance discipline screwed up high school for a lot of kids. On the rare occasion that I was personally in trouble for something, depression, insomnia, anxiety, and boredom had put me on a hair trigger and I was about as likely to collapse in tears as to act out. Because 99% of the time I was a "good kid" and I had clear panic attack symptoms, teachers were pretty willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and talk out what was wrong. EVERY kid deserves that benefit of the doubt.
sestree 2nd-May-2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
I remember the 'zero tolerance' when my son was suspended for fighting.

Problem was he wasn't fighting. He was laying on the ground getting the crap beat out of him by 3 other students.

He still got suspended - same consequences in fact that they did. First day back? kid ended up in the hospital - oh and suspended for fighting again or should I say being punched again.

Then he went to Catholic School. Best move I ever made.
cashay 2nd-May-2012 04:39 pm (UTC)
Wow, this article really moved me.

I'm from Germany and at least where I went to school people rarely get suspended, but honestly I wish there had been a lot more teachers asking "What's wrong?" instead of punishing, or probably even worse ignoring issues and acting like the students are just doing it for fun.
britneyspears 2nd-May-2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
i think this is really interesting and i hope it expands to other schools.

the zero tolerance policy sucks. my younger brother spent all of middle school allowing kids to punch/hit him because if he so much as defended himself he'd get suspended as well.
juunanagou18 2nd-May-2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
Same thing happened to my brother when he was in the first grade. Some little boy kept pushing him and my brother finally shoved him back to make him stop. A teacher saw and they were both suspended. Should he have told the teacher? Probably, but even at 6 years old my little brother knew that it probably wouldn't amount to anything. As it turns out, my brother wasn't the first boy that the other kid had bullied/try to bully.

My mom didn't even sweat it. My little brother's suspension was basically a free day because he defended himself, and how can you get mad at that? Especially since he's never had an aggressive temper before and even now at 17, he's practically a gentle giant. Zero tolerance is such bullshit because it doesn't get to the root cause of anything. It just breeds resentment against the administration and induces fear of punishment for the wrong reasons.
zhiva_the_mage 2nd-May-2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
# Gangs controlled the school. It had only 50 students #

I have problems parsing this. What does "it" refer to, the school or the gangs?
teacoat 2nd-May-2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
Well "gangs" is plural, so it's pretty unambiguous that "it" is referring to the school.
pipsdixiechick 2nd-May-2012 05:58 pm (UTC)
So damn proud of my home state right now! :-D
tabaqui 2nd-May-2012 06:30 pm (UTC)
Amazing - talking to kids and listening and having a little empathy actually produces results. Who'da thunk!
lickbrains 2nd-May-2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
My Psych professor talked about this and it's just full of awesome win <3
per_simmon 2nd-May-2012 08:51 pm (UTC)
(TW for bullying)

I was bullied (verbally and physically) like heck all through middle and high school. When I think about what a difference it would have made had a teacher simply asked how I was doing I start choking up, and it's been a good decade since then.

When I do think about that time in my life I try to think of the authority figures kindly, in that they were genuinely overworked, the classes were too big for them to notice everything etc. But the fact of the matter is that even when I or my parents told them about what was going on they treated it as though I was part of the problem for even speaking up. After one particularly heinous attack (a half-dozen boys cornered me on a school bus and spent close to an hour spitting on me, pulling my hair and verbally abusing me), the teachers had the balls to tell my parents that they were out of line for wanting to go to the police, since it would hurt those boys to have something like that on their permanent record. My homeroom teacher, after I asked her to keep my name a secret when talking about it in front of the class, made sure that everybody knew it was me. I'm pretty sure I never talked about the bullying with a teacher again.

So..I don't know. The bullied, angry kid in me is very much in favor of strict punishment for bullies. The adult I've become is aware that that's a knee-jerk reaction, and tries to see that bullies are often people who have their own pain to carry, and that solutions need to address that too. If this works, that's wonderful. But if it doesn't..I'm in favor of protecting bullied students first and foremost.
meimichan 2nd-May-2012 09:06 pm (UTC)
Good grief, THIS.

I remember when my schools went to zero tolerance for everything. Felt like you were just a drone. Be quiet and learn, or be punished.

Zero tolerance and an automatic punishment for doing anything wrong....stupid. And ineffective.

thecityofdis 2nd-May-2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
I'm confused. Children are not mindless automatons that you can bore and beat into submission?

On a more serious note, I read this article a few days ago and am very glad to see it ended up here.
mrasaki 2nd-May-2012 10:48 pm (UTC)
That entire article is a good read, but heartbreaking.
4o5pastmidnight 3rd-May-2012 12:03 am (UTC)
and, in at least one case, farting.

REALLY?! I know my cousin got a call home because he was being an idiot and farting in class and disrupting it all the time (and no, he doesn't have bowel problems or anything; he was doing it to be funny), but suspension seems really intense.

I'm glad they're talking to kids about this stuff now. I had one teacher that listened to me and talked to me when I was seriously stressed and depressed, and without him I don't know if I'd have graduated that year. I still keep in touch with him and I'm still constantly grateful for the fact that he was an ally who would listen to what I had to say. I wish more kids could have someone like that.
amyura 3rd-May-2012 12:42 am (UTC)
I wish more schools did this. TBH, as a teacher from a family of teachers (both parents and my sister and MIL), a lot of teachers DO try and employ this model as much as we can, but the buck stops with administrators, which is why zero-tolerance policies really have to go. (My general response to the F-bomb is a calm, "Not in the classroom, please.")
phoenixblaze 3rd-May-2012 06:24 am (UTC)
I'm always surprised when this doesn't happen more often even though I know I shouldn't be. For my job I'm CPI trained which isn't just restraint training; there's a whole day of crisis management training. That defusing is sort of the core of that training and I would think more schools would pick up on that training.
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