Data from Stark County schools show districts routinely rely on suspensions for a broad range of misconduct, which experts say isn't always the best way to handle bad behavior.
David Fischer, Sandy Valley Local Schools superintendent, compares an educator disciplining a student to a police officer dealing with a speeding driver.
The first time a person gets pulled over, the cop might just issue a warning.
But if the person gets caught a second time: "Good luck trying to talk your way out of that ticket," Fischer said. "(It's) very similar in a school district."
While state law addresses consequences for severe behavioral issues, there are few guidelines about discipline at the state and local levels — most educators make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Data from Stark County schools show districts routinely rely on suspensions for a broad range of misconduct, which experts say isn't always the best way to handle bad behavior.
"We've kind of gone from a more proactive and preventive model to unfortunately being somewhat reactive," said Erich Merkle, president-elect of the Ohio School Psychologists Association.
STATE DISCIPLINE GUIDELINES
Ohio Revised Code states local boards of education must adopt policies that detail under what circumstances students are allowed to be suspended, expelled or removed from school and offers some stipulations about lengths of suspensions and expulsions and how parents or students may appeal them. The law also includes guidelines for superintendents about how to handle situations where students bring weapons to school, commit an act that would be a criminal offense if the student were an adult, or make some kind of threat.
John Charlton, spokesman for the state department of education, said school discipline is a local decision, though the state offers some polices related to the use of seclusion or restraint. He said the Ohio Department of Education encourages the use of positive behavioral reinforcement, rather than harsh punishments.
Several Stark County superintendents said discipline in their districts is generally progressive, meaning students don't always get the harshest consequence immediately.
Fischer said the district uses the lowest-level discipline possible in every situation. Principals ask teachers what they did to try to correct the student's behavior and whether the parents have been contacted. Then, the principal looks at the student's intent behind the action before deciding on discipline. There's a difference between a student attempting to hit a friend because he or she is being ornery and attacking another student maliciously, Fischer said.
Louisville Superintendent Steve Milano said if a behavior isn't violent or drug-related, the district tries to use progressive discipline to correct it. The first offense might yield an in-school suspension, rather than an automatic out-of-school suspension. But the policy works the other way, too — the consequences might be more severe if the child doesn't begin to change his or her actions.
DISCIPLINE IN STARK DISTRICTS
Across the board in Stark County, there are a few behaviors that routinely result in out-of-school suspension — namely, bringing a weapon to school, showing disrespect to a staff member, fighting and using profanity, data provided by individual districts show.
And then there are those behaviors that seem less serious but also have resulted in a student getting removed from school, at least for a day. Those infractions include causing chocolate milk to be spilled in the cafeteria, refusing to hand over a cellphone and sending inappropriate emails.
Five years of state data about Stark County schools show that when students were punished with removal from the classroom for offenses including truancy, possession of drugs and harassment, most districts used out-of-school suspension between 20 and 40 percent of the time.
In Canton City Schools, when a student was punished with removal from the classroom for disobedient or disruptive behavior, 48 percent of the time the student was suspended out of school, state data show. At Plain Local for that category, the out-of-school suspension rate was closer to 70 percent. At North Canton, it was 21 percent.
Merkle said fears about an increase in school violence and a belief that schools are unsafe have led to educators adopting more punitive models of punishment.
"At least psychologically, that's probably the least effective way to try to arrest or extinguish a certain type of behavior," he said.
A bill introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives in November would allow superintendents to expel students for up to 180 school days for behavior they consider threatening and to extend the expulsion up to 90 days an unlimited number of times if they think the student isn't ready to return to school.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio submitted testimony last month opposing the bill, calling suspensions and expulsions "discredited" and "outdated."
"While suspension and expulsion are seen as quick fixes for schools, the practice is harmful to students who are removed from what should be a supportive environment, who suffer academically from missed class time and course work and who many times are exiled to an environment that feeds their underlying problems," the testimony reads.
Zero-tolerance policies, which Merkle described as reactive forms of punishment, originally were adopted to handle major rule violations, such as weapons and drug offenses.
Research from the National Association of School Psychologists says the concept of zero tolerance has since been expanded to include tough, predetermined consequences for all kinds of behaviors — the thinking being it keeps kids safe, creates a healthy learning environment and sends a message that certain kinds of actions are never OK.
But the association has concluded that zero-tolerance punishments might also make the student more likely to drop out and that using any kind of school suspension method can make students feel alienated and increase their avoidance of staff members.
Merkle recommends a switch from punishment — which has the sole intent of halting misconduct — to discipline — which re-educates a student by offering corrective feedback or teaching a more positive behavior.
If a student hurls a milk carton across a cafeteria, a day out of school isn't going to get the child to stop acting out in that way because there's not a logical connection between throwing the carton and being removed from school, Merkle said.
At Louisville, Milano said he once had a group of students involved in a semi food fight. Their discipline included coming in and helping the custodian clean up the cafeteria.
The district also opts to have students complete community service at area churches in lieu of suspension.
It's a practice Plain Local Schools also uses frequently. Karen Vrabec, district spokeswoman, said in an email that community service is always an option for a student who will miss instructional time because of suspension or expulsion, depending on the severity of the infraction.
Fischer said he's all for creative consequences — if the students and parents are willing to cooperate.
When a student is suspended out-of-school and spends the day sitting at home on the couch, Fischer said there's seldom a lesson learned because the student ended up getting what he or she ultimately wanted.
He said his preference is to have the student serve in-school suspension — where he knows the student is completing his or her work and where the student can also experience a more logical consequence. If the student was disruptive in the cafeteria, he or she could stay after a meal and help the lunchroom crew scrub pots and pans.
Especially for "repeat offenders," using more personalized discipline establishes a bond, Fischer said. That doesn't always happen when a district relies on standard punishments.
"I think (the students) think that there's a disconnect," he said. "You say you care, but you really don't."
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