Welcome advocates to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their schools.
I have a very special guest with me today. Dr. Tracy Piper is here today. She was actually a referral to me from an article entitled, "In-school suspensions the answer to school discipline? Not necessarily, experts say", out of the EdSource. I'll leave a link in the show notes for you to take a look at that if you'd like. But without further ado, Tracy, thank you so much for joining us today.
Oh, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
The pleasure is definitely mine. Before we get into today's topic, we're going to start with the school to prison pipeline, and we're going to move into alternative to suspension, and some of your work and research. Before we get into that, I'd love for you to share with our audience a little bit about yourself and what you currently do.
Great. I am the director of student support services in Hemet Unified School District, which is in Southern California. It's a suburb of Riverside, California, so it's a little bit far out there.
We have about 23,000 kids in our district. Of our 23,000 kids, 88% are socioeconomically disadvantaged. About 10% African-American, about 50% Hispanic. Then we also have a large portion of the district that's up in a very rural area where we have some Indian reservations, so we have about 10% Native Americans as well. The rest are white. So a pretty diverse district. With the high socioeconomic need, there's always need for supports for the kids.
Yeah, I believe there's always room for growth, and so I'm glad that you're here.
I try my best not to assume that folks that listen to the show have all of the background, understanding and knowledge when it comes to terminology, when it comes to equity work. So before we really dig into our conversation, I'd love for you ... Because we're going to talk about the school to prison pipeline, in your own words, what is that? What is the school to prison pipeline?
I think I was first introduced to this idea of the school to prison pipeline when I was working in alternative education, because we know that there's a portion of students for whom traditional education just doesn't work for any number of reasons. We found that that was the case especially for students of color, for students that were impacted by trauma.
As an alternative education administrator, I was really running up against students that had not only huge impacts on their life from the trauma they'd experienced, or the lack of support at schools, but it had actually gone farther in that kids were being subjected to really heavy disciplinary procedures over small things. It was beginning to create a picture of the student that may or may not have been accurate.
In schools, unfortunately, we also have school resource officers, and frequently when kids were violating education behavior code which should have merely resulted in a suspension, we were involving law enforcement as well. So not only were we now building a record for them with regards to school discipline, and seeing poor outcomes with regards to them passing classes and graduating from high school, but we were also starting to build a criminal record on the students.
So when they actually ended up leaving the system, they ended up with not a great education, not a lot of prospects, and possibly even a record that could lead to some more severe measures from the justice system as they matured into adults. So It became clear to me pretty quickly that our school discipline practices were actually causing this in some cases, or just exacerbating it in others.
When we think of school to prison pipeline, it's partly disciplinary practices, but it's also partly the impact of exclusionary disciplinary practices on kids, where it makes them no longer able to be as successful in school as they should be in order to be successful adults.
Thank you. Before we started recording, you even mentioned about zero tolerance policies. Could you share a little bit about some of your thoughts on ... Okay, we're introducing our students into the juvenile system by the way that we're addressing discipline. One of the things that I've seen a lot is the zero tolerance or those three strikes type of policies, which again, enters our kids or introduces them to the juvenile system. Could you share some of the thoughts that you shared with me earlier?
Sure. One example is we, in our district, and we've changed this significantly over time, but we were at a point where even a first grader, when they got into a fight, it was tagged in our discipline system as assault and battery, because there was a belief that we needed parents to understand how serious his behavior was, when in fact, a six year old probably is not actually committing assault and battery. To have a six year old tagged with assault and battery is a pretty extreme response to a kid probably just losing his cool and getting into it with another kid. That's the first part.
The second part was zero tolerance. You said it's kind of a joke, but it's not a joke. It used to be if you got in a fight, you got suspended three days. If there was blood, it was five days. That's a zero tolerance policy that nobody takes into account how the fight came to be, or who was participating in the fight, because the person who ...
I have twin daughters. When my twin daughters were playing on the kitchen floor, I would hear one of them cry, and I would turn around. Stephanie would be crying, and Grace would be hitting her on the head. So I'd say, "Grace, stop it." Well, I didn't realize that Stephanie had pulled Grace's hair first. So the problem is we don't always see what's actually happened. We only think we've seen what's happened.
To discipline a student based so strictly on, "If there's blood in the fight, you're getting a five day suspension," that could just mean that one of the kids was bigger than the other kid, or got a good punch in.
Those kinds of rules and guidelines actually make things worse for kids, because all it does is possibly misidentify a behavior. It excludes the kids from school. They get behind in their classes. There's no way to catch up. Now, we've created an even larger problem.
Even the fighting can be one thing, but I've seen zero tolerance policies for not bringing a pencil, not bringing your schoolwork, or forgetting your backpack. Folks are still penalized or removed from from the classroom for quote unquote minor misdemeanors, if you will, when it comes to the type of discipline, right?
Right. I think part of it, too, is that we really want kids to participate in their education. I think a lot of teachers just have limited tools to make that happen.
I used to joke with my teachers, when I was a principal, that every time they would send a kid to me, they just taught every other kid in the class what their line was. That if the line is cussing at me, "If you stand up and cuss at me, I'm going to kick you out," well, if I'm in my math class, and I don't want to do my assignment, I'm just going to start cussing, because I've learned a valuable lesson today.
The second thing I used to say to them is the minute you send them to me, you've given away your power, because you no longer have any say over them. You removed them from the class. It's far more effective to keep the student in the class, and find a way to work with them, in the long run.
In the short run ... Unfortunately kicking kids out of class is a self-reinforcing behavior for teachers, because teachers are upset by the students' behavior, they kick the kid out of class, and the immediate problem is gone, so they feel better. They aren't thinking longer term down the line. Well, the kid is coming back, and when the kid comes back, this is going to be worse.
Yeah. They're going to be mad. They're going to be mad that, "You kicked me out."
Yeah. They're going to be super mad.
Yeah. Okay. Here's another thing I've seen. The kid gets kicked out of class. They get sent to the office. Sometimes our office has a in-school suspension area, some sort of ISS, right? It may or may not be monitored to a certain level.
Sometimes, I've seen students be willing to, like you said, know that threshold, know that line, and do whatever they need to do, because they're not feeling school that day, or feeling in class that day. They just need to fall asleep, or they even need a quote unquote quiet space.
So they'll do whatever it takes to get out of the classroom, so they can go to this. Some students view it as a hiatus. "This is a nice, low place for me to go. I can just chill for the rest of this class period. That's my experience."
Obviously, like you said, they miss class time, instructional time. Now, they come back a day behind, and then now the teacher has to spend extra time trying to teach the student what they missed yesterday. Again, it's a continuous cycle.
Well, an ISS frequently has no instructional component. It's just a holding tank. I used to joke that ISS, all we're doing is creating a cohort, a cohort of kids that don't want to go to class. That's not necessary. ISS rooms are, I would say ... I've worked at a lot of schools over my time in education. ISS rooms are notoriously lacking in educational content. So when the kid's at school, what are we teaching them?
I think the bigger problem is how we even identify who goes to ISS. We don't spend time, generally in education, trying to figure out what happened. We just go on what we saw, or what we heard, or what we think happened.
That, of course, plays into our biases, because we always ... If you look at the implicit bias tests, where they're showing pictures of different people of different colors, and then they have both positive words and negative words, we tend to associate negative words with people with darker skin, positive words with people with lighter skin. So in general, our biases are playing in.
In the world of positive behavior interventions and supports, it's called a vulnerable decision point. When a kid acts up, that's a vulnerable decision point for the teachers. One thing we know about vulnerable decision points is when you react during a vulnerable decision point, you react out of your biases. When you respond, you respond from a place that comes from your true values and beliefs.
So one of the things we really train teachers on in our district is mindfulness. It's really important that when that vulnerable decision point happens, that you stop and take a breath, and give yourself a chance to react from your values and beliefs, instead of your implicit biases.
The other thing is we don't really ask kids what happened in disciplinary situations. We're upset. We don't like to see a fight. We don't want kids to get in trouble. Even if it's something so simple as not bringing a pencil to class, it can be very upsetting for a teacher. So we don't tend to ask, "Why don't you have a pencil?" We just focus on, "You don't have a pencil. Get out of here."
The fact of the matter is if we were to ask why, and take the time to actually listen to the reason, most teachers are there to serve kids. Most teachers are going to say, "Wow. I didn't know that about you. How can I help you out?" But when we don't give ourselves that moment to respond, instead of reacting, we don't give ourselves an opportunity to do the right thing either.
Okay. Yeah, yeah. Thank you.
Let's talk about some alternatives. All right? We've laid out the school to prison pipeline. We've discussed zero tolerance and disciplinary, in-school suspensions. What are some alternatives? How do we keep our kids in the classroom?
I remember having a conversation with a group of teachers. They were so concerned about what happens to the students when the students are kicked out of the class and sent to the office. They didn't like the protocol. They didn't like, "Oh, the kids come right back. What's the procedure?"
I said, "Why are we worried about what happens when they leave? Why aren't we talking about how do we keep them in our classroom?" What are some alternatives that you would love to suggest for us?
Well, one of the strongest I'll ... What we did is we made it okay for teachers ... First of all, teachers could not send kids directly to an ISS class. They had to send kids to the administrator first, was the first step.
We trained everybody in restorative practices. In restorative practices, the first question we ask is what happened? We don't ask, "What happened?" We genuinely ask, "What happened?" When we listened to their side of the story, we might get a different perspective.
Then the restorative conversation goes on to ask, "What were you thinking at the time? What have you been thinking since? What can you do to make it right?" So now the student is not just ...
If we just kick them out and don't go through the restorative practice, the student thinks it's our fault they got in trouble. If we bring them through a restorative process, the student starts to see that they actually had something to do with the situation. They start to take ownership for their behavior. That last question helps them to think about how they can make things right.
That's something that we also don't do. If a kid is just excluded from class and then sent back, they blame the teacher instead of blaming themselves. They have no plan for returning to class.
So we started an alternative to suspension classroom, where students, when they weren't doing well in class, or when they got into an issue, they went to the administrator.
First of all, if it was so simple as a teacher saying, "You don't have a pencil," this now gives the administrator an opportunity to know that that teacher needs some help. That teacher needs some help around classroom management, rather than the kid going directly to ISS.
If it is something more egregious though, where the student does need to leave class, then the administrator has a choice. They have a choice between making it an out-of-school suspension or an alternative to suspension.
We got rid of our ISS OCR rooms altogether, and the kids would go to alternative of suspension class for a minimum of three days. During those three days, the teacher would do ... It was a credentialed teacher in the room, including special ed support.
They would go through a series of activities with the students that included restorative practices. We used a socio-emotional curriculum. The one we used is [WhyTry 00:15:53]. There's a lot of them out there, Second Step, but that's the particular version we use.
Then they do a presentation at the end where they have to actually make it right with the people they wronged. They have to either talk to the student they fought with, talk to the teacher they got into if with.
If it was something that really the students felt ... Because the teacher that was in that classroom had three solid days with only eight or 10 kids. So they're always able to figure out what's the core of the problem. If it's really just a problem between a student and a teacher, then we offer an opportunity for the teacher to participate in a restorative conference with the student. That way, both of them can understand.
The teacher also answers the restorative questions. They answer what happened from their perspective. That helps the student see the impact of their actions on other people, and ideally to change their behavior going forward.
In addition, we found a really, really low rate of recidivism. We only had about 26% at high school, a little higher, about 30% at middle school. Once they completed the three days on alternative to suspension, they never went on to another suspendable offense again. It really helped them to change their behavior, which in my opinion is the ultimate goal of school discipline. My job is not to punish you. My job is to change your behavior.
Okay. Let me ask you this, because you mentioned egregious behavior. Was there a list of offenses that would warrant a egregious response, or was it on a subjective level, or did you maybe train ... Like you said, you train your teachers in a certain capacity when it came to classroom management. What was some of the processes that a teacher could go through in order to gauge whether or not this warranted being sent to the office or not?
To be honest, once a teacher sends a kid down to the office, it's like you said, it's really not their decision anymore. It's now the administrator's decision of how egregious it is. So I would say if it was egregious enough that the teacher felt like they had to send the kid out of class, they sent the kid out of class. Then from that point, the administrator decided.
Although in California, there's some clarity, our education code. We have certain offenses, they're called 48915 offenses, the 48915 series. That's things like bringing a gun, sexual assault, really serious offenses that are automatic suspension on first offense. No questions asked. The 48900 series, A through E, we're allowed to suspend on the first offense, but we're not mandated to. F through R, we're not even allowed to suspend on the first offense.
If it was something in the F through R series, and those are things like disruption, theft, profanity, those things we aren't allowed to suspend on the first offense anyhow. So generally, the administrator would select alternative to suspension, although they have other interventions they can use as well.
If it was something in the A through E series, which is basically fighting, weapons, drugs, they would figure out what the story was, and then determine if it was going to be an out-of-school suspension or an in-school suspension.
One example of that would be, at this one particular high school we have, there's a very dangerous neighborhood that many of the kids live in. They have to walk through that neighborhood to get to school. They caught a girl with a knife. She had a knife in her backpack. She was not brandishing it. She did not have it out. It was simply in her backpack.
She's, "Well, I bring this, not to hurt anybody at school, but because to and from school, I'm not safe. I need to protect myself." Well, when the administrator heard that, first of all, they set up busing service for the girl. Now that's a beautiful intervention, if you ask me. But they don't ...
So there are other choices, depending on the situation. Once we start asking that question of what happened and what were you thinking at the time, sometimes that brings us some clarity that allows us to think about how we're going to address the situation in a different way than exclusionary discipline.
I think what you said right there is a great example of why the zero tolerance doesn't work, because that young lady would have been immediately suspended or maybe even expelled for having a knife, when we don't take things by a case by case basis. Because like you said, we don't necessarily know the background story as to why this quote unquote crime or offense was committed without ... If we go by the book, this is what it says. Okay, if the child does this. This is supposed to be the consequence.
There was blood, five days.
Yeah. Exactly. Right.
If there's blood, five days.
That doesn't work. That doesn't work because we don't know necessarily ... We got to know the whole story.
I talk about this with data. When we sit there in our staff meetings, and we're going through the data, and we're looking at academics, and we're looking at suspension rates or whatever it is, discipline, and we're just only looking at the numbers, we don't get the full story. We don't get the full picture.
That is not ... To me, that's again, it's doing our children a disservice when we don't take the time to get to know the full story, and get both sides and all of that jazz. So I'm glad that you gave that example. Again, it just shows why we need to take things from a case by case.
Now, some folks will say, "Well, I don't believe in that." What are some of your thoughts? If someone tells you, "No. I think we leave too much subjectivity when it comes to taking things maybe case by case," what is maybe your response to someone that might give you some pushback when it comes to, "No. I think we should just definitely have strict policies here, as opposed to having an opportunity to hear the story out"?
That's a great question, because when I present to school staffs, I say that there's a continuum of perspectives on school discipline. There's doves and there's hawks. Doves are the people who are like, "I'm going to keep you in my class no matter what. I don't care what you do. Jump on the chair. Do whatever you like. You're in here." There are hawks that are like, "You didn't bring a pencil. You're out."
Now, most of us lie somewhere along that continuum. Very few of us are pure doves or pure hawks, right?
So then for me, it becomes a discussion of for what types of behaviors are you more on the dove side of the continuum, and for what types of behaviors are you more on the hawk side of the continuum? Because then we get more to the values that that person holds.
Some people on the hawk side will say, "Well, there's 28 other kids that have to learn. I can't just run my whole class based on this kid." That's a good conversation to have, because that leads to the conversation of kids judge us by how we treat the worst kid, not how we treat the best kid. You're actually sending a message to all your kids by doing this.
The other thing, you said this earlier, it's more work for a teacher. If the kid is suspended for three days and comes back, now, the teacher has to provide make up work, and extra grading, and maybe tutoring. So it's in their best interest to minimize that as much as possible.
Then sometimes it just comes down to a situation. This is something that I don't think we talk about enough in education. There are some situations in which a kid and a teacher are a bad fit, and that's all there is to it. If it's that bad of a fit, maybe we need to have a discussion about how we can find a better placement for the kid, or a better classroom for the kid.
Because I think when people say, "Well, I think it should just be one way," I think it just really begs the conversation of explain to me your perspective on that. Because there's all different reasons people feel like that. They feel like, "Well, I'm teaching them a lesson." So I would say to my teachers, "They came back and their behavior was the same, so what lesson did you really teach them?" Then when they have to come up with the lessons they really taught, they realize, "Oh, well, maybe that didn't teach them a lesson."
Then a lot of people will say, "Because I want to prevent them from being criminals." Again, that's a great entree to the discussion of, "Actually, you're creating a criminal, because you're putting these tags on them, and it's just not necessary."
The other thing that we did in our district that was really powerful is we've been working on our community partnerships for years. I have 25 community partnerships that have therapists that come into our school. So now I can say to a teacher, "Well, I know this kid is going through X, Y, and Z, but maybe suspension isn't the answer. Maybe we need to refer them to a therapist. Maybe they need to be in a grief group, because they saw someone killed. Maybe they need to go get their teeth fixed. Maybe they need to go to the dental van, because they have sore teeth."
When we start thinking about all the different ... We became a trauma informed district, and we have a trauma informed initiative. We're trying to change the narrative so the mindset is not what's wrong with you, but what happened to you.
When we start helping people see that from that lens of what happened to you, then suddenly they become less punitive. When we say, "Oh, there's something wrong with you," that's almost like there's nothing I can do about that. That's on you. That's on your parents. That's on whoever, right?
But when we start shifting the narrative, among our staff, to what happened to you, now, all of a sudden, that's more actionable. How can we help you after something that happened? This behavior, if we treat the behavior as a manifestation of an event, or something happening to the kid, it's much easier for those hawks to really see that it's not a static trait of the child. It's just an event that happened.
I love this conversation. I have another question that came to my head when you talked about sometimes a teacher and a student are just not a good fit. What ideas, maybe what strategies could you share with us regarding a student and a teacher relationship that's not a good fit? What suggestions would you take?
I'm going to couple that, let's call us a Part B of that question, when it appears that the teacher student relationship is across multiple teachers. Maybe that same student is not getting along or having the best relationship with multiple teachers, what type of strategies or suggestions could you provide?
I'm going to use an example of a student that I had at one of my schools. I had a student, I guess he was in seventh grade, so he was about 12 years old. African-American boy, just cutest thing ever. Super popular, probably one of the most popular boys at school.
But this boy could not read. He could not read period. He would go into classes. When he would go to English class, and they would say, "It's time to read aloud," what do you think he would do?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). He'd act up.
He would stand up and start cussing the teacher out. Because you know what? He's too popular. He can't let his friends know that he doesn't know how to read. That's not working.
What I did was I moved him in ... I had a conversation before I moved the child. I did not just ... First of all, as a principal, I rarely just moved to a child. I always had a conversation with everybody involved.
I had a conversation with one of the reading teachers. I said, "He literally cannot read." I was in alternative ed, so I would give them a book in my office, just to see if they could read. He couldn't get through one sentence. I said, "Can you help him learn how to read? But you cannot let other people know that he doesn't know how to read. So you cannot ask him to read out loud." The teacher was like, "Okay." So he started to build a really good relationship with that teacher. That was the only teacher he had a good relationship with, which was interesting.
The other teachers, I would say to them, "Okay. I know he's difficult. I'm going to tell you that if you make him read out loud, you're going to have a problem." But even in any academic realm, if the lack of reading had made him so disheartened and unsure of himself in all academic realms, because there's reading involved in all academics, but he had really let himself fall behind academically, because he was like, "What's the point of trying?"
So I said to the teachers, "I know he can't read. I know he's going to cause problems if you make him read out loud. So I'll tell you what. Send him to me. I have things that I need done."
He used to set up all the AV equipment at his church, and he was brilliant. I would have speakers out at lunch for music on Fridays. So on Friday, if he had not gotten kicked out of a single class, I would let him leave his math class early, again, prearranged it with the teacher, to come set up all the audio visual equipment for lunchtime. This kid, honestly, barely got kicked out of class again.
So sometimes we just have to think about partly what's the reason behind the behavior and almost the function of the behavior, like attention from his friends. He doesn't want negative attention from his friends. But also he's an attention seeking kid. I know that's a function of his behavior. So giving him a reward that feeds that attention-seeking part of him was really powerful.
The other part of that is he started to actually build confidence in school, because he found a place where he was useful. I didn't ask him to read a manual. I literally gave him the equipment and said, "Set this up."
But again, I cleared it with all the teachers first. I also said, "If it's not working out for a day, send him to me." So they had a different option besides just suspending him from class. They could just say, "You know what? You need 10 minutes off. You needed to go to Dr. Piper's office." He would just come down. He would hang out with me. He'd go back and he'd be fine.
But so a lot of it is finding ways to prearrange things with teachers so that the teachers get the classroom environment that they deserve, and that they want, and that the other kids need, and the kid also gets the support that he needs to go on and be more successful.
I love it. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that story. I think being able to illustrate that is very helpful for us. Dr. Piper, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you could share with our listeners?
I guess my advice is to just seek to understand. It seems like a little thing, but seek to understand why the student's acting up, and what the rewards are that help them to make different decisions.
Seek to understand why the teacher is so upset with the student. What does the teacher need that the student is getting in the way of? Seek to understand what the teacher needs.
Seek to understand the skills of your teachers, because some teachers are really good with some kids and not good with others. That's okay. But the more you seek to understand everybody's perspective ...
Seek to understand the parent's perspective. No parent wants to only get 10 negative phone calls and never a positive phone call.
So my advice would be seek to understand. That will help you to really treat school discipline more like education.
More like education. Tracy, if we've got some folks that want to connect with you, what's the best way to reach out to you online?
You can find me on LinkedIn at Dr. Tracy Piper, on Twitter at Dr. Tracy Piper, or [[email protected] 00:32:11].
All right. We'll leave all those links in the show notes. I'm also going to leave a link to the article, "In-school suspensions the answer to school discipline? Not necessarily, experts say".
Well, Tracy, it has truly, truly been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much for your time.
Oh, thank you.
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