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Schools may change discipline policies


Dayton Public Schools officials said in an exclusive interview with the Dayton Daily News that they are in the middle of a months-long study of new discipline policies — some of them in line with suggestions made by Racial Justice Now.

Racial Justice Now is a local organization upset that Dayton Public Schools’ out-of-school suspension rate is four times higher than the state average, and that DPS has few other discipline options. RJN claims racial bias in suspension decisions, and cites research that out-of-school suspensions make students more likely to drop out.

While DPS already is considering the issue, several district leaders urged the school board to take its time to get the response right, and Dayton’s teachers union said Racial Justice Now’s current proposal goes too far.

That proposal was made last week by RJN co-founders Vernellia Randall, professor of law at the University of Dayton, and Maria Holt, mother of a DPS student. They asked Dayton’s school board to put a moratorium on all out-of-school suspensions for preschool through third-graders next year, and ban suspensions for all ages for nonviolent offenses like disobedience, truancy and profanity the following year.

Randall said Dayton should mimic Cincinnati Public Schools, which has replaced most out-of-school suspensions with other forms of discipline.

Dayton school board president Robert Walker told RJN that the school board would identify a response and contact the group “in the very near future.”

“We have a diverse group that started looking at our student code of conduct back in the fall — parents, teachers, principals, community members,” Dayton Superintendent Lori Ward said, adding that Holt is on that committee. “I think both Racial Justice Now and Dayton Public Schools recognize that a child has to be in school to learn.”

Views on suspension

Some DPS officials agreed that out-of-school suspensions are ineffective, with board member Ron Lee saying “we realize there is a problem,” and Ward adding that the district’s suspension rate is down 30 percent so far this year. Sheila Burton, Dayton Public Schools’ executive director of accountability, said DPS expelled fewer than five students last year, placing others at the Longfellow Academy alternative school.

But recently retired DPS teacher Wonda White and current intervention specialist Becky Schwab said there are times when suspension, after multiple failed interventions, is the right choice. White said she doesn’t think the public realizes how disrespectful, profane and disruptive some students can be, even at a young age.

But Randall said other options are better.

“No one is suggesting that kids don’t have issues that need to be dealt with. We’re just saying, sending them home doesn’t change their behavior,” Randall said. “I raised two children. I do not want students disrupting the classroom to the point where my kids or your kids couldn’t learn. But I don’t believe that’s the only choice. I think if we start with these kids early, we can really work with them.”

Discipline rates

Burton said DPS’ disciplinary responses of any kind actually are lower than most of Ohio’s large, urban school districts. Dayton’s rate was 50.1 per 100 students last year, compared with 53.9 for Cincinnati, 45.7 for Cleveland, 78.8 for Columbus and 105.7 for Akron.

Ward said the school district continues to study how that discipline data breaks down by race, gender and individual teacher.

“Do our children of color have higher discipline rates? Yes, absolutely,” Ward said. “Are we looking into that? Absolutely.”

A statement on the Dayton Education Association website said “Dayton teachers are not targeting students based on race and gender,” with the teachers union calling RJN’s claims misleading and disheartening.

While acknowledging DPS is neither the highest nor lowest in Ohio when it comes to out-of-school suspensions, Racial Justice Now is asking the district to refine its response.

Incidents, teacher response

The district’s existing code of conduct says Level 2 incidents can result in out-of-school suspension, and Level 3 events “will be referred to the expulsion hearing officer,” who has some discretion.

A DDN review of that code of conduct shows that an odd mix of incidents fall into each level. Level 2 includes fighting and threats to staff, but also dress code violations, possession of tobacco and being out of your seat on the bus. Level 3 includes arson and causing serious injury, but also trespassing and gambling.

Tiara Benton said conflict with other students was what knocked her son William out of Fairview School two years ago, near the end of second grade.

Benton said her son has oppositional defiant disorder and she admitted his behavior was spotty as he adjusted to a new medication. She said a conflict with some classmates one day led school officials to threaten her son with expulsion.

As a result, Benton homeschooled William for the rest of second grade and all of third grade. She said the adjustment was tough on her son. It may have been tougher on her, as Benton said she lost her job at Red Roof Inn in the process.

William is now back in DPS as a fourth grader at Dayton Boys Prep, and Benton is back in school herself, hoping to finish her final semester this summer.

“I don’t believe kids should be suspended (out of school) at all,” she said. “Most of these parents are working and they are single-parent homes. If you’re sending them home and all they’re doing is watching TV and playing video games, they’re not learning anything … but then the teachers expect them to keep up. Sending them home is not a punishment for these kids, it’s a vacation.”

Teachers union president David Romick said RJN’s call for a complete end to out-of-school suspensions for young students is a bad idea.

“There are instances where school districts may have to suspend, by law, (for) infractions where other students, staff or a building could be put in danger,” Romick said. “Any age kid, for any reason, can cause an unsafe situation.”

A statement on the union’s website questioned how the programs Racial Justice Now suggested would be paid for, and called RJN’s proposal “unsafe for students and unsafe for teachers.”

A method that all like

One approach that Dayton teachers, school administrators and Randall’s group all approve of — if it can be funded — is restorative justice, which DPS is using in a pilot program at Ruskin PK-8 School.

Ruskin Principal Judith Spurlock said each class meets weekly with an intervention specialist trained in conflict resolution. In those sessions, the students share emotions, talk about how to manage them and discuss responsibility for their actions.

Then when an incident happens, the students (or student and teacher) involved go to the restorative justice room, where the specialist mediates the dispute, based on the principles the whole class has learned.

Ward said restorative justice is the effort she’s most proud of, and the group studying DPS’ code of conduct is looking at how to expand it. But simply adding Ruskin’s program to more than 25 other schools could cost close to $2 million per year unless those specialist positions were taken away from another budget area.

School board member Sheila Taylor said whatever solution is reached, it must involve input from all parties affected.

“We don’t want to make a quick, wrong move,” Taylor said. “We want to make sure that what we decide to do is the best for everyone.”



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