When Erika Jones, a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles, needed to know what to do for a tantrum-throwing, book-hurling kindergartner in lieu of sending him to the principal’s office, she discovered she’d have to teach herself a new approach to school discipline. “For me personally, I didn’t receive any training from the district,” she said.
As California presses school districts to stop suspending hundreds of thousands of students a year, many teachers, like Jones, say they have been under-prepared for the change, according to a new survey by the California Teachers Association released late last month. Nearly 9 out of 10 teachers surveyed said they need more training and the support of school psychologists and counselors if they are to successfully retreat from “zero tolerance” discipline practices, in which even minor infractions may result in a student being sent home for a day or more.
Yielding to research findings on the failure of zero tolerance policies and a 2015 state law, California schools have significantly cut their suspension rates in recent years. As an alternative, educators have espoused a philosophy resembling good parenting — know the child so you can understand the ‘why’ behind a meltdown, praise good behavior and seek professional help if the behavior is too complicated to manage.
Forty percent of teachers surveyed said they had received “little or no training” in alternatives to suspending students.
“We think the restorative and positive practices are the right direction to go,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, referring to “restorative practices” that allow students to make amends and to programs that teach positive social and emotional skills and provide counseling and other interventions. “Where it’s being done well, it’s great.”
But the survey reflected what the teachers association suspected, he said. While a lot of districts are talking about restorative practices and positive behavior supports, “not many are providing teachers with the resources to present it properly,” he said.
“What’s happening is these students are being thrown back into the classroom and nothing has been done to deal with their behavior,” he said. “There continue to be disruptions, causing frustrations on both sides.”
Eighty-six percent of the nearly 3,500 teachers and other school staff who completed an online survey between May and December 2016 said they need additional training in how to reach the students they once may have sent to the office, as well as increased access to school mental health professionals to support students in distress. Forty percent said they had received “little or no training” in alternative discipline approaches, according to the survey, which drew responses from K-12 teachers as well as from school nurses, psychologists and counselors represented by the 325,000-member association. Responses came from staff in school districts large, small, rural, urban and suburban, the California Teachers Association said.
The findings come as a landmark 2015 law to reduce suspensions heads toward expiration next year and its replacement – Senate Bill 607, authored by Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland – works its way through the Legislature. The 2015 law – Assembly Bill 420 – eliminated the ability of school principals to suspend kindergarten through 3rd grade students for disruptive or “willfully defiant” behavior, or to expel students in grades K-12 for such behavior. Research has found that school staff define disruptive or defiant behavior inconsistently and, according to noted researcher Russell Skiba of Indiana University, studies have found no evidence that African-American students misbehave more often or more intensely than their peers of other races, although they are far more likely to be suspended.
Noting the racial disparity in how suspensions for willful defiance have been doled out, four districts – Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, Pasadena Unified and Azuza Unified – deleted disruption and defiance as a justification for suspension in grades K-12 even before the ban became law for grades K-3. Oakland Unified adopted a similar ban in 2015. SB 607 would follow their lead and ban suspensions for willful defiance for K-12 students statewide. More than 20 other reasons for suspending students remain on the books. And under state education code, teachers have the right to remove a student from their class period for a day or two. That right would remain under SB 607.
The California Teachers Association neither supports nor opposes SB 607; it has a “watch” position, indicating interest in the bill, and has said it would like the bill to include funding for schools to train staff and hire mental health professionals.
Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, said the success of new discipline approaches depends on training for both teachers and administrators, and not enough training has been done. The California School Boards Association has a “support, if amended” stance on SB 607 and is asking for a K-8 ban on suspensions for disruptive or defiant behavior, rather than the proposed K-12 ban.
“The issue is high school,” Hoffman said. “We still haven’t provided appropriate and real training to all teachers and all administrators on how to deal with children today.”
The teachers’ survey found that districts were far from a full roll-out of alternative discipline approaches. Eighteen percent of teachers said their district used restorative practices. Forty-five percent said their district used “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” a data-based system in which administrators track when and why students are referred to the office and whether a difference is being made by multiple interventions, from teaching students how to calm themselves to providing individual counseling.
“What we’re doing in our district is a little piecemeal now,” said Eric Myers, president of the Stockton Teachers Association, a teacher in Stockton Unified for 19 years and an alumnus of the district. “In all fairness, our superintendent is in his first year of his job and he didn’t take over until the school year programs were set.”
“The frustration is that when the (AB 420) law went into place, it did create a lot more chaos in the classroom,” he said. “They didn’t train teachers or bring programs in for teachers to learn how to address this behavior.”
Only two elementary schools in Stockton Unified have trained their staff in restorative justice techniques, Myers said — and those schools have had a large drop in suspensions, he said. How many staff members in the district are trained in the behavioral interventions tracking method is a matter of dispute, he said. He told the superintendent it was about 30 percent, while the superintendent told him it was about 80 percent, he said.
“We still haven’t provided appropriate and real training to all teachers and all administrators on how to deal with children today,” said Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association.
He turned to a new approach with students after an incident in 2013-14 when he was teaching junior high math, he said. A student cursed at him and refused to do his work. Myers got angry and sent the student to the office, where he received a suspension. “A week or two later, I found out that the student was actually facing a really serious family issue,” Myers said. “If I’d tried to identify what was causing it – I felt awful.”
He shifted his demeanor, asked students about their lives, and joked with them. The number of students he referred to the office dropped to five for that school year. “And the students, the difficult students, started at least trying in my class,” he said.
Pressure to refrain from suspending students is likely to increase this fall, as school suspension rates are posted for the first time in the new school accountability system, said Heins of the California Teachers Association.
“It’s a situation where we need to realign our whole thinking on how we manage students in the classroom,” said Darryl White, a former principal of elementary, middle and high schools in California and the current chair of the Black Parallel School Board in the Sacramento City School District.
The need for a new approach is clear to Jones at Los Angeles Unified. “I’ve seen students suspended for everything from laughing in line to refusing to do their work,” she said. But changing teacher attitudes about student behavior isn’t enough if students can’t get the counseling help they need, she said.
To help the kindergartner who was having violent tantrums two years ago, she referred him to a school counselor, she said. That was good fortune, and fleeting. The counselor’s position was funded by a federal School Improvement Grant. “Once that grant was gone, that support was gone,” Jones said.
“When I realize why the behavior is happening, but don’t have the resources — that’s emotionally hard,” she said.