SEATTLE — There may be a way to improve how discipline is handled in schools that would benefit all students and at the same time reduce some of the racial disparities that exist today.
And it could be done without troubling adults who are uncomfortable dealing with race or who are unfamiliar with how bias operates. It’s worth considering as the U.S. Department of Education continues its investigation of the Seattle Public Schools’ disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions of black, Latino and Native American students.
I want to tell you about a school where this approach has taken hold, Lincoln High School in Walla Walla. The principal there, Jim Sporleder, has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years for taking what researchers know about child development and applying it to his school’s approach to discipline.
Maybe like me you think that’s an obvious thing to do, but most institutions and people like to stick with tradition. When I spoke with Sporleder last week, he’d been like that, too, but he changed.
You need to know a little background. In the 1990s, Kaiser Permanente surveyed and examined 17,000 middle- to upper-income people, the beginning of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Participants were given a list of stress-inducing experiences and confidentially checked any that applied in their childhood. The study found a strong relationship between the number of stressors experienced and the development later in life of a range of physical and mental illnesses. It also turned out that what happened in childhood affected later behavior.
Much research since then has shown how brain development is affected by intense or long-term childhood neglect, abuse, dangerous environments, chemical exposure, discrimination.
The ACE investigators were surprised by how common childhood trauma is, even among a group of people who were far from the usual suspects.
What’s been learned changes how people who understand the ACE results view “acting out.”
Sporleder has been an educator for 32 years, a principal for 20 and the principal at Lincoln for the past five. He volunteered for the job because he thought he could make a difference. Lincoln is an alternative school for students who’ve had problems elsewhere.
As he explained it, if a kid would mouth off to a teacher, Sporleder the traditionalist would have said something like, “ ‘If this was the workplace you couldn’t tell your boss that’ — and you suspend him for three days, and as a compassionate person, you tell him, ‘When you come back, the slate is clean.’ ”
Then he went to a day of training in Spokane. ACE researchers spoke, and so did researchers from Washington State University, who would provide training for Lincoln’s staff and recently won a federal grant to expand their training to other areas of the state, under the leadership of Chris Blodgett. The presenter who made the biggest impression on Sporleder was John Medina, a dynamic speaker and brain researcher from the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University.
“I had my brain rocked,” Sporleder said.
The core of the change, he said, is this: “We don’t react to the behavior, we seek the cause of it.”
When a student acts out, educators have to remember it’s not about them. Retaliation for what they believe to be a personal affront isn’t the answer. And, the question isn’t, What’s wrong with this person; it’s, What has happened or is happening to this child?
In the 2009-2010 school year, before the change, Lincoln recorded 798 suspension days and 50 expulsion days. Those numbers dropped dramatically in 2010-2011, and in 2011-2012 there were only 103 suspension days and five expulsion days.
Before the change, there were 48 incidents requiring police action. Last school year there were 11, and in the same period the number of students sent to the office dropped by half. All this happened even as the student population grew by a third.
At first, Sporleder would wonder whether he was being soft by relying most of the time on in-school suspension, but students were begging to be suspended. In school, their work was brought to them, and they were held accountable for doing it. Out of school, they were free to do whatever they wanted, and that wasn’t always something good. His method holds them more to account, and they don’t fall behind in school.
Sporleder has a different approach to trouble. He might say, “Something must be going on for you to behave this way. Tell me about it, maybe I can help.” If a student is agitated, he might say, “You’re in the red, I’d say. Lets talk in 15 minutes when you come down.”
“You problem-solve with them,” he said. “I’m teaching them about the brain, about stress and how to catch those triggers before they go off.” Sometimes he tells them, “There is hope here, let me teach you how.”
Of students who are labeled lazy, disruptive, unmotivated — teachers just want to get them out of the classroom, he said — “and they are the ones who need this approach to keep them engaged rather than giving them the message that they are not wanted.”
He understands teachers are under pressure, trying to teach their curricula and trying to get students to meet test-score goals.
His teachers don’t have time for long counseling sessions. When a student is disruptive, a teacher might take him into the hallway (not in front of the class) for a brief conversation. “Hey, I’m trying to teach. It sounds like you’re having a bad day. What do you need so I can teach?” It’s not defensive or confrontational. And if the student needs to just put his head on the desk for a day, so be it.
“I feel like I’m extremely privileged to work with the kids I work with,” Sporleder said. “Some call them the worst because they don’t know what they’re going through. If teachers had gone through the same thing, we’d be protecting them rather than reprimanding them.”
Even in high school, the approach helps, though the earlier it is practiced, the better. And this approach isn’t just for the most troubled students.
Wouldn’t you like to be treated like Sporleder treats his students?
Jerry Large can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org