Zero tolerance already kicked off most campuses in Modesto area

01/09/2014 6:34 PM

01/09/2014 7:09 PM

The federal call for more constructive school discipline raised few eyebrows at Modesto City Schools, where the shift to more effective strategies got a kick-start with state sanctions nearly two years ago.

“It’s putting on a national scale something districts and schools have been working on. I’m actually kind of grateful it came out. It puts credibility behind what we’re doing,” said Mark Herbst, the district’s director of special education.

In July 2012, the state cited Modesto City Schools for high numbers of special education students kicked out for bad behavior, demanding the district put $800,000 toward lowering those numbers. At the time, Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson said the district would use that and a $90,000 grant to train staff and establish in-school alternatives districtwide.

On Thursday, Johnson displayed improved numbers and listed trainings done, innovative programs in place and alternatives available. But, she said, real progress takes “a change of culture” and more work lies ahead.

“This is not something you change in one workshop,” she said. “There is nothing easy about this.”

The Obama administration issued guidelines Wednesday calling for restraint in calling in law enforcement and a rethinking in zero-tolerance policies that have spiked arrests, suspensions and expulsions for even minor offenses. Minority students have fared the worst, statistics show.

“We often talk about solving this problem as if it’s an easy problem to solve,” said James Forman Jr., a clinical professor at Yale Law School. “Actually creating a positive school climate, particularly in schools that are in communities that are themselves not calm and orderly, is hard work.”

Part of Modesto City’s training for teachers included cultural differences and the strains poverty puts on families, Johnson said. “What is defiance to you? It might look very different to me,” she said.

“We’ve really worked on people understanding what a zero-tolerance policy does. I get why they were put there. After Columbine, people were really scared,” Johnson said. In Modesto, she said, zero-tolerance became “a mind-set.”

Suspensions called ineffective

To change that, the district has increased counseling, spread the Peace Builders program across all its elementary schools and formalized ways to focus on fixing problems, not just punishing. Having campus supervisors seek out good deeds and standardizing everyday rules are all part of the new mind-set.

Suspension days can be reduced if parents attend special classes. Elliott Alternative Education Center, a continuation high school, offers classes to reduce aggression and improve social skills. So-called restorative justice programs, where student antagonists talk through their problems, are being piloted.

“They’re all more tools in our toolboxes,” Johnson said, all grounded in research on what works.

“There’s a misconception that suspension is effective – it isn’t,” said Mike Henderson, district director of alternative and vocational education. Suspended kids are far more likely to “interact with law enforcement,” as he put it. Back on campus, behavior problems tend to return.

The district needed better tools to manage a post-“Happy Days” world, where behavioral norms stretch a much wider span. The recession made it worse, adding to acting out in classrooms. “We saw a tremendous increase in poverty, where kids had this inordinate amount of stress just from what was happening in their lives,” she said. Across Modesto’s elementary schools, some 85 percent of children qualify as poor this year.

The number of suspensions and expulsions is coming down, though not all groups have reached state norms, district statistics for three years ending with 2012-13 show.

Black high schoolers with special needs are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled in Modesto than the state average, but that’s down from three times as likely. Latino teens with special needs were only slightly more likely to be kicked out last year, down from a rate nearly twice the norm in earlier years.

Other indicators reflect that progress, with the dropout rate for black students falling from 24 percent to 15 percent over the three years. The non-Latino white and Latino rates were 12 percent and 19 percent, respectively, for 2012-13.

Ceres sees attendance rise

Ceres Unified School District also has worked to lower suspension and expulsion rates, dropping both 20 percent from 2011-12 to 2012-13. Rates for Latino students appear to have come down the most dramatically. Latinos make up about two-thirds of the district’s population.

The payoff shows in better attendance, said Jay Simmonds, assistant superintendent with Ceres Unified. “We’re seeing an academic boost, as well, because students are in the classroom,” he said.

He credited the change to teachers and staff focusing on prevention instead of punishment. “Counseling’s the biggest thing, interacting with students to find out what’s making them act the way they’re acting,” Simmonds said.

Elementary teachers call parents when problems arise, and suspensions in the classroom, in a campus study hall or a move to another classroom are options. Administrative mentors, counseling, incentive plans and behavior contracts all are options, too.

Ceres gives its administrators broad authority in addressing behavioral issues. “We don’t do anything black-and-white. There’s no zero tolerance. It’s common sense,” Simmonds said.

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