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Children and Families Forum: After-School Program Seeks to Disrupt The School-to-Prison Pipeline
By Anna Panzo, MSW, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 18 No. 3 P. 28

In the United States, black students are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students. These suspensions and expulsions limit students' learning opportunities and contribute to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, in which harsher school consequences for black students often lead to higher representation in the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system. Educational equity is an ongoing challenge in today's America. The iconic Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that led to the desegregation of schools, did not establish equal educational access for minority students. Ideally, every child has access to the same school resources and academic opportunities. However, the reality is that minority students, and in particular black students, face disproportionate educational disparities. Among these disparities are school disciplinary practices.

James Huguley, EdD, and Ming-Te Wang, EdD, assistant professors at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and School of Education, respectively, with generous funding from The Heinz Endowments, have been exploring national school suspension rates, the school-to-prison pipeline, and best practice models. They also researched data in their local region. "What we found was startling: In our region, black students have been suspended from school in recent years at rates that are as much as seven times higher than the rates of other students," Huguley says. "We find that in our local county, over 80% of districts have a problem with either high suspension rates overall, problematic racial disparities, or both. Given these issues, the need to develop best practice models locally is quite urgent, and we have been honored to partner with Woodland Hills and Heinz to take on this challenge." Huguley and Wang confronted this challenge through partnership with a local school and launching Just Discipline, which synthesized their findings into a concrete, school-based program.

Just Discipline is a school climate program based in the Woodland Hills Intermediate School that strives to decrease racial disparities around school discipline, in part by developing leaders and providing them with conflict resolution and peer-mediation skills. "What many schools are doing around discipline simply doesn't work, and as researchers it's not enough to just point out the problems over and over," Huguley observes. "We're thrilled to be able to stand with Woodland Hills Schools to collaborate on the challenging work of school climate transformation."

Shawn Thomas, MSW, the on-site restorative practice coordinator, facilitates the program. "I serve as a preventive resource for both students and teachers in regards to conflict mediation," Thomas explains. "The program looks to reduce suspensions by enhancing awareness and equipping student with the necessary skills to cope with hardships through effectively communicating their feelings."

Just Discipline's student leadership program works with a carefully and rigorously selected cohort of students. Thomas explains that in order to be accepted into the program, students had to go through what he describes as a "strenuous interview process." In order to be a candidate, each student needed a teacher recommendation. Once they had that recommendation, they were given 24 hours to complete three essays. Following submission and review of their essays, the students were interviewed. After the interview, the selected students were taken on field trip to the University of Pittsburgh, and the leadership program progressed from there.

Several students speak about the impact that Just Discipline has had on their school thus far. One student in the fifth grade, Damon Givner, comments on how the program has impacted the role he plays in his school. "I feel like it [Just Discipline] made me step up in my position as a student in this community and classrooms to help people. It helps me think, 'Let me go break [up] this stuff, or stop this from getting too far before it turns into something physical.'"

Another student, John James, shares a teacher's reaction to his conflict resolution efforts among his friends. "I was trying to talk with my friends, and a teacher saw me doing that, and she complemented me on it, and said she liked what I was doing."

Huguley agrees that teachers within the school have received the program positively. He comments, "I think we were pleasantly surprised how many of the teachers were receptive to trying to do something different. It seems that even they knew that suspensions were not an effective default strategy but were also in need of additional resources to do things more proactively. ... Teachers were in strong support of our student leadership program, and other program elements like community circles have been adopted quickly into the teachers' regular independent practices."

Other students discuss their parents' perspectives on their participation in the program. Fifth grader Kennedy Lee says, "I talked to my mom and dad, and they said it's a good thing that I'm in a leadership program, because I set an example for other people."

Amiyah Wesley, a sixth grader, adds, "I told my mom and stepdad about this, and they're really proud of me, because they know I used to be shy, and now they see I'm more confident."

Several students share that the program has helped them grow in their ability to intervene in arguments or fights, increase their confidence, and help them to be more aware of their role as a leader in their school. Givner speaks to his hopes for the program in the future. "In the next couple of years, I would like to see more changes, positive energy, and change—like less write-ups and fights—because that can really ruin the school's reputation. Lately we've been doing a lot of positive things, and the negative things that certain people are doing can really affect that perception."

Both Huguley and Thomas say that early data evaluation results show that school suspension rates and fights have decreased since founding the Just Discipline program and are lower than in previous years. Huguley remarks, "These reductions mean a lot to the students who would otherwise have had an experience that certainly would have had a negative effect on their developmental outcomes down the line. I also think our program's presence has been a source of hope for the school and district community, and I think Shawn's individual work has been really meaningful to the families of the students he serves."

Decreased fights and suspensions have an incredible impact on student learning, development, and growth. Trent McLaurin, PhD, director of specialized services at Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia, says of the educational and developmental repercussions of school suspensions and expulsions, "Kids aren't in an educational community being developed, and if you think about the impact it has educationally on younger students in elementary school, a lot of learning is very teacher and school dependent, because the kids are learning reading skills, phonic skills, vocabulary, and other foundational skills."

McLaurin's research has explored mentorship skills and positive behavior interventions and supports, and how systems impact student behavior and student success or functionality in schools. He finds that often, effective school discipline does not focus on punitive results for students who are "acting out" but rather reinforces positive behaviors. "This has a positive impact on all the students in the school environment, as opposed to one student being identified for the wrong behavior," he says.

Huguley also addresses the influence school discipline has on the school's culture, saying, "Although people tend to think of school discipline as a stand-alone issue, it's actually very closely tied to the relational culture of the school, and thus an integral part of the psychosocial dynamic of the school environment."

Just Discipline has used positive reinforcement to impact their school's culture and climate. Among other methods, Just Discipline has started a schoolwide initiative called the "Wolverine Cup." In the cup, each homeroom competes to earn points; the homeroom in each grade with the most points wins a pizza party and holds the traveling trophy for that month. Homerooms earn points for things such as adhering to the uniform code, good transitions, and clean rooms. The cup also held an antibully poster contest. "The purpose is to promote a healthy school climate around homeroom competitions," Thomas says.

Just Discipline is pioneering a powerful approach to creating healthier schools with strong student leaders, improved learning environments, and educational equity. Givner speaks creatively through a song he wrote on the impact that Just Discipline has on the student leaders in the program at Woodland Hills Intermediate School:

Instead of recording the fight, we should be breaking it up,
Making a difference, changing it up,
And if we do that then we gone erupt,
Tick, tick, boom.
Guys, we got to be unique.
Instead of being too cool for school,
We got to be a geek.
The new trend is being book smart,
So don't let material stuff blind you in the dark,
And if you have a bad day then think about tomorrow.
Don't think about the pain and the sorrow.

Just Discipline is shaping a new generation of leaders within their school that have the potential to change their school culture, improve the trajectory of its students, and create an environment where educational equity is possible.

— Anna Panzo, MSW, LCSW, is a social worker and writer who lives in Philadelphia.