Echoing national trends, school board has moved away from “zero tolerance.” Here’s why.
Terry Falk Oct 23, 2015
Zero-tolerance hasn’t worked. Both liberal and conservatives agree on that. We have filled our prisons with low level offenders through minimum sentences, three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation. Today, Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate for black men in the nation, but the streets of Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities are no safer.
Educators have come to the same conclusion with discipline in our schools. Zero tolerance in schools meant that expulsion had to be considered in every instance where a weapon or drugs were found. School fights, which were once handled by school officials, now meant a call to the police. Just a few years ago, Milwaukee was ranked at the top of school systems that suspended students, but such suspensions added little order to our schools.
Last summer the U.S. Department of Education launched “Rethinking Discipline” to come up with alternatives to the zero-tolerance school practices.
A few years earlier, Milwaukee School Superintendent Gregory Thornton took on the issue of suspensions in an effort to drive down those numbers. Suspending a student might get the student out of the hair of the school staff for a day or two. But often the students just sat at home watching Scooby Doo and eating Froot Loops. When they came back, no behavior had changed.
Recently, as a school board member, I pushed for changes in the MPS expulsion policy. Previously the system would expel a student without any educational services. It is unlikely that a student expelled for selling drugs would sit at home and contemplate the errors of his ways. Most likely the student would just learn to become a better drug dealer. Today MPS still expels students but the system offers alternative educational services while on expulsion.
But a group of “no-nonsense” charter schools have not rethought their discipline policies. Both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan railed against excessive discipline practices by these schools.
“Too often, so-called zero-tolerance policies, however well intentioned they might be, make students unwelcome in their own schools; they disrupt the learning process,” said Holder in a Washington Post article last year.
The poster child in the Washington Post article was Roxbury Prep in Boston, that had one of the highest suspension rates in Massachusetts. Nearly 60 percent of its students had been suspended at one time or another in the previous year. While Roxbury touted the fact that students exceeded the state in achievement on state academic tests, critics of Roxbury pointed to the school’s high turnover rate. Their high standing was not based upon what they did with the students they had; rather it was a product of sorting through students keeping the most successful students and “counseling out” students who didn’t meet its standards.
Roxbury had an extensive waiting list of students who wanted in, and parents were thrilled when their children were accepted, but often parents changed their mind about the school when their children were ushered out the door.
This is why the Milwaukee school board had so much trouble in approving a new charter school, Milwaukee Excellence. This school followed the no-nonsense concept, directly referring to Roxbury Prep as its model. Ultimately the school board would approve its charter only after the school made changes to it discipline policy and its suspension and student turnover rate were added to its evaluation.
But this is hardly the end of the story.
Recently Secretary Duncan announced that he was leaving the Department of Education and his replacement is undersecretary, John King, none other than the man known as one of Roxbury Prep’s founding members.
Immediately the internet lit up. “The King of Suspensions” was the headline of several blogs. Conservative-turned-liberal education expert, Diane Ravitch, echoed the same concerns. And it doesn’t help that King not only has butted heads with teacher unions, but also had a poor reputation for listening to parent concerns when he was New York state education commissioner as he pushed for more testing along with his support for Common Core.
Ironically, as a youth, John King was kicked out of a private prep school and gives much credit for his success to the teachers who cared for him in traditional public schools. How he came to believe in no-nonsense schools is something of a mystery.
Will Secretary King reverse the “Rethinking Discipline” fostered under Arne Duncan? That is unlikely. And it may be too much ask that he repudiate the no-nonsense discipline policies he once supported for Roxbury Prep.
However he acts, people on both sides of the educational divide will be watching.
Terry Falk has served as a Milwaukee School Board member since 2007.