Some Jefferson County school board members say they’ve received more calls this year than in the past regarding disruptive classroom behavior—and board members are concerned the district’s discipline policy is being interpreted differently by principals.
“By no means am I getting lots and lots of concerns, but I’m getting more this year than I have ever had before from parents about students in a number of schools, in a number of kinds of situations,” says board member Debbie Wesslund, who represents neighborhoods in the East End.
Wesslund was one of three JCPS board members who raised similar concerns at Monday night’s board meeting.
Last school year, JCPS suspended about 13,000 students, which is 2,000 fewer suspensions from the previous year, officials say. That’s a positive step for those pointing to research that says suspensions aren’t effective for all student infractions and that strict discipline policies leading to out-of-school punishments are more harmful than helpful.
As WFPL reported Tuesday, outside groups have pressured JCPS to improve its discipline policy that disproportionately affects minority students.
But while suspension numbers come down, the district also needs to ensure teachers and principals are prepared to manage safe classrooms and schools that will provide all students with good learning environments.
Wesslund says she’d like the board to receive a briefing on how the district handles discipline in schools to make sure everyone is on the same page with respect to the JCPS Code of Conduct, which is the blueprint for how educators are suppose to react to student discipline issues.
Board member Carol Haddad—whose represents district 6—said she agrees with Wesslund and is also receiving more calls from principals who are told not to suspend.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I know we have things in place that can handle some situations but not all situations. So we have to be sure we keep the schools safe and not just have a good record that we’re not suspending. We don’t want to suspend. We want them in school, but we want to make sure we have safe schools too,” Haddad says.
Several JCPS schools have taken different paths to suspend fewer students. In many circumstances this includes changing school culture and may include implementing initiatives like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Systems (PBIS). Some in JCPS are implementing more restorative practices too, but discipline plans are left to the school.
And some are doing better than others.
JCPS released its first ever equity scorecard this week, which measures discipline, literacy, college-and-career readiness and school culture data. Lead researcher Judi Vanderhaar points to some schools, like The Phoenix School of Discovery, which have been successful in reducing suspensions. At Phoenix, suspensions were reduced among every racial group by over 80 percent in one year.
“It was a big culture shift,” says Vanderhaar.
Principal William Bennett attributes the success in part to “Implementation of a Positive Action Center for when students are removed from the classroom. The PAC focuses on teacher positive behavior and replacement behaviors,” the scorecard says.
But there’s a balance schools need to have between reducing suspensions and managing classrooms.
Vanderhaar also ran student focus groups as part of the scorecard data. She quotes one student as saying, “I’m trying to learn this year and I can’t cause the class is acting up.”
At the district level there are certain initiatives that have been put in place to keep students in schools instead of punishing them with suspensions. These include student response teams (SRTs) that are groups of educators and social workers that may respond to specific student problems. Also the district’s Louisville Linked initiative helps schools and students connect with needed social and community organizations more easily.
Wesslund says she’s heard good things from administrators about these initiatives but she—like board member Linda Duncan, who also says she’s received more calls this year—are concerned with increased classroom disruption.
The school board is now questioning how JCPS educators are responding with respect to the district’s Code of Conduct and ways the board can support educators while they suspend fewer children.
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