Credit: Alison Yin for EdSource Today

With a big push from the state’s new approach to education spending, many California school districts appear to be ramping up investments in positive approaches to discipline.

The majority of the 50 largest school districts have included programs in their July 1 budgets that emphasize connecting with troubled students or offering them a chance to make amends, rather than taking more punitive actions, according to a preliminary analysis by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California. The group is a state office of a national nonprofit organization of law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

The investments include $4.2 million for restorative justice programs, which offer a format for students to make amends and repair relationships with those they have harmed, in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They also include $2.9 million in the Elk Grove Unified School District and $1.6 million in the Santa Ana Unified School District for a data-driven approach known as “Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” a framework that guides the use of research-based practices and offers increasing levels of behavioral management and support.

“There’s a lot of good news and real change,” said Brian Lee, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California. The new finance system, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, “appears to have had a very positive effect,” Lee said, on increasing the statewide investment in alternatives to so-called zero tolerance discipline practices, which impose mandatory suspensions or expulsions.

“The minute I saw school climate as one of the eight state priorities, I thought, ‘Here’s our road to continuing our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,'” said Bill Tollestrup, director of special education and wellness for Elk Grove Unified.

Lee tempered his comments with the caveat that because of unclear accounting terminology, it’s difficult to tell if the investments use new state funds meant to improve the experience of high-needs students, defined as low-income students, foster youth and English learners. He also said it is unknown how effectively districts will implement alternative discipline approaches. Lee’s organization is tracking what the 50 largest school districts have said in their three-year spending plans, known as Local Control and Accountability Plans, about how they will improve school climate. A report on the findings is expected to be released by the end of December.

The move to positive, prevention-based discipline is not straightforward, with some districts investing in both school police staffing and programs that aim to prevent conflicts, said Maisie Chin, co-founder of CADRE, a Los Angeles-based grassroots parent organizing group.

“We found this to be exceptionally problematic, and possibly counterproductive, to the increased investment in positive behavior interventions and supports and restorative justice,” Chin said.

Creating a positive school climate – one that allows students and staff to feel connected, engaged and safe at school – is one of eight state priorities that districts are asked to focus on under the Local Control Funding Formula law enacted last year. For the first time, the law requires schools to demonstrate with data that they are improving school climate by reducing suspensions and expulsions and by “other local measures, including surveys of pupils, parents, and teachers on the sense of safety and school connectedness.”

“The fact that school climate is one of eight state priorities is critical” in driving interest in positive discipline approaches, said Laura Faer, statewide education rights director for Public Counsel Law Center, a Los Angeles-based national pro bono law firm. “It’s encouraging to see that a number of districts are investing in research-based actions that we know are best practices.”

In 35 of the 50 largest districts, the Local Control and Accountability Plans include either Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports or restorative justice, and in some cases, both. The approaches have been used in some districts for several years.

The local plans, and the new supplemental funding for districts that serve high-needs students, are allowing districts “to invest and reinvest” in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports initiatives that were cut during the state’s economic downturn starting in about 2007, said Matthew Navo, superintendent of the Sanger Unified School District.

“The minute I saw school climate as one of the eight state priorities, I thought, ‘Here’s our road to continuing our PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) efforts throughout the district,’” said Bill Tollestrup, director of special education and wellness for Elk Grove Unified.

Elk Grove Unified had made scattered attempts in the past to implement the approach, but it didn’t take root because of a lack of training and commitment, Tollestrup said.

But last year, Elk Grove Unified invested $1.5 million in federal and state special education funding in Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports for early behavioral interventions for students. The district also had additional federal and state funding to improve mental health and behavioral services for students potentially eligible or eligible for special education.

In the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, those monies were bundled with other funding sources to create a $2.9 million plan over five years to use positive behavioral interventions at every school, Tollestrup said.

Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports originated as a framework for special education classrooms, but its reach has gone far beyond that. To be effective, all teachers, staff and part-time employees must be trained in behavior management skills, including how to offer explicit, positive requests – instead of saying, “Don’t run!,” a schoolyard supervisor might say, “Please walk.”

Key to the success of the framework is a database system to track specifically when, where and why a student is sent to the office for disruptive behavior and what interventions have been tried. In Elk Grove Unified, the database revealed a surprising pattern: Disruptive students were filing into the principal’s office in two predictable waves – before lunch and before the end of the day.

It was a pattern no one had noticed. After coming across research linking those two times of day with discipline referrals, Tollestrup queried the district database and found the linkage to be true.

“We are seeing big spikes at those times – when kids are tired and hungry or adults are tired and hungry,” Tollestrup said.

From there, the idea is to have the positive behavior teams at the schools – groups of general education and special education teachers, support staff, parents and others – talk to teachers about the pattern. Teachers might ask themselves, “Am I being fair, or am I reacting because I’m tired and at the end of the day?” Tollestrup said.

A study of the data also revealed a surge of discipline issues at 2 p.m. with fifth-graders at one school, he said. As it turned out, that was when students were shifting classrooms for reading groups – and behavior conflicts were popping up in the transition. To address the matter, students are being taught, in a positive way, how they are expected to behave during the transitions. Teachers are being coached on what warrants a referral to the office, and what does not. And parents who are called to the office to talk about their child’s behavior are now greeted by signs that let them know that they are expected to behave respectfully, too.

“It’s a big shift – a culture change,” Tollestrup said.

Because Local Control and Accountability Plans give districts more latitude to choose programs to fund, call for considerable involvement by parents and community groups, and provide additional funding to schools that serve high-needs students, advocates are hoping that the plans will contribute to a widespread shift in school culture.

Such a shift received a boost this fall when the state Legislature passed a first-in-the nation discipline reform law targeting disruptive behavior known as “willful defiance.” The law eliminates willful defiance as a cause for suspending students in kindergarten through third grade and bans all expulsions for willful defiance.

“In just a few short years,” Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and author of the bill, said in September, “school discipline reform has become an important education policy priority in California because the stakes are very high.”


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  1. Sherry Doyle 2 years ago2 years ago

    Very well written, as the three tier Positive Behavior interventions are taught in Credentialling programs as well as in clearing credential plans.
    The school wide plans are as powerful in teaching the language of positive crisis communication, as they are proper rituals for hallway transitions or when to call an adult to help a peer instead of attempt to solve problems. We are just beginning to see the results.

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