Commentary: OKCPS too reliant on suspensions 

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Discipline is the most emotional dispute in education. Recent Oklahoma City Board of Education meetings on the district’s new code of conduct have become angry. All sides are committed to the students, however. We can all agree that Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) has grown too reliant on suspensions. Punitive policies feed the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Clearly, OKCPS needs more socio-emotional student supports, but it cannot now afford them.

Better professional development can reduce disciplinary infractions. Some even think that improved classroom management would solve most disciplinary problems. Better teaching can make a difference. The question is, How much of a difference?

I believe administrators often overestimate how much misbehavior can be decreased by improved instruction, but they are unquestionably sincere.

The lessons learned during our bipartisan school improvement effort, MAPS for Kids, could be helpful. Having served on the MAPS Steering Committee, the latest school board meeting dispute seemed like déjà vu.

For instance, it was reported that 29 of the nearly 900 students at Webster Middle School are responsible for 40 percent of the school’s discipline problems (“OKC district Webster Middle School reports decrease in disruptive behaviors, Nov. 29, The Oklahoman). In 1998, on the eve of MAPS, the majority of infractions at my high school, John Marshall High School, were committed by 96 students. Had we enforced our rules, 36 of our 1,300 students would have been eligible for long-term suspensions of 10 days or more.

MAPS volunteers were shocked to learn that OKCPS needed another 1,200 alternative school slots. We recommended “Rolls Royce-quality” alternative education so it would not be seen as punitive. The voters agreed that “no child should perpetually disrupt class merely because alternative schools were full.”

When OKCPS started expanding alternative education, Marshall saw an immediate difference. We improved more than any other OKCPS high school, soon posting outcomes comparable to Northwest Classen, the district’s highest-performing neighborhood school.

And this is another example where the Marshall experience is similar to today’s patterns. When principals felt empowered, they could draw a line on misbehavior before it spun out of control. The first of the year could be worrisome with school administrators fearing that they were disciplining too many students, but after their credibility was established, fewer suspensions were required.

Similarly, Webster began the 2015 year with more suspensions of one to five days but saw a drop in long-term suspensions.

Perhaps OKCPS should recommit to MAPS promises of a high-quality early warning attendance system and Rolls Royce-quality alternative schools, but we must avoid unnecessary controversies. So, I support the promising “restorative justice” program, while recalling that without adequate funding, it can backfire.

I would double the staffing of in-house suspension (ISS) rooms in neighborhood secondary schools. A teacher would conduct ISS class and keep order. A social worker/counselor or teacher would provide interventions. Disruptive students could then be immediately removed from class without being warehoused.

OKC could then unite and work together to adequately fund programs that provide comprehensive support to teachers and troubled students.

Thompson blogs regularly on national education issues at The Huffington Post, This Week in Education and School Matters.

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John Thompson

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