New Approach Emphasizes Positive Discipline in Public Schools

By reducing suspensions and expulsions in area schools, positive discipline is helping keep Colorado kids in class and learning while curtailing a school-to-prison pipeline that swallows an estimated 6,800 area youth annually.
When Principal Brian Duwe came to Aurora West College Preparatory Academy (AWCPA) in 2013, the school had the highest expulsion and referral rates in its district. "The attitude," Duwe says, "was that student discipline was somebody else's issue."

The problem went beyond accountability. During his first months at AWCPA, Duwe noticed teachers weren't always equipped with the strategies needed to support a healthy classroom environment.

Duwe's top priority was figuring out how he could keep more kids in the classroom. The answer came in the form of a new initiative launched by the Denver Foundation during the 2013-14 school year: a learning cohort aiming to replace no tolerance discipline policies with a positive approach designed to lower recidivism while reducing suspensions, expulsions and encounters with the juvenile justice system.

Understanding the problemAWCPA's Brian Duwe recognized the need for a new approach to student discipline.

Zero tolerance discipline policies -- the kind imposing severe discipline on oftentimes minor or moderate infractions -- don't work. That's a research-backed assertion, says Denver Foundation Director of Education Sarah Park. It's also a pretty intuitive concept: suspended and expelled kids, after all, can't learn if they aren't in class.

These students, Park continues, are far more likely to have an incident with the justice system in the year following suspension, and they're more likely to fail a grade or drop out all together. Tellingly, 68 percent of men in state and federal prison don't hold a high school diploma.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the decks stacked against black and Latino students, with that demographic being almost 4 times more likely to be suspended than whites. Other reports indicate students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended than non-disabled peers, and LGBT students are 1.4 times more likely to face suspension.

The whole community is impacted by stringent discipline policies. The cost of remediation for a student to repeat a grade level, for example, is about $10,000 to taxpayers; the cost associated with dropouts is around $200,000 over the course of that person's lifetime.

To address this pervasive, prejudiced and costly problem, the Denver Foundation in 2010 began identifying and engaging nonprofits and schools that could work together to form positive discipline practices based on restorative justice, socio-emotional learning and equity -- all the while focusing on enlisting parents as equitable partners with the support of Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods group.

"We cast a wide net to the entire Denver Metro area and made outreach calls to schools in all seven counties," explains Park. Nonprofits and schools identified themselves, and the outcome of ongoing public engagement and a request for proposal, the Learning Cohort to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline, launched in 15 Aurora Public Schools last year.

Technically, the Cohort's three separate programs run by three local organizations: reSolutionaries, the Aurora Mental Health Center and PassageWorks Institute. While programming varies in execution, each organization shares an overarching goal of reducing suspensions and expulsions.

Restorative justice The reSolutionaries focus on supporting age-old restorative justice practices at five public schools.

The reSolutionaries focus on supporting age-old restorative justice practices at five public schools, including Duwe's. The process, says Park, "dates back hundreds of years to indigenous practices in New Zealand. This is a revitalization of those practices that is tailored to schools."

ReSolutionaries members provide learning sessions and regular coaching to participating teachers, students and parents, giving them a whole new skill set surrounding mediation, restorative justice circles and restorative justice agreements. "It's also about giving people ways to speak to each other in a constructive, relationship-building way," adds Park.

The restorative justice process can be tailored to each unique situation, but it's always designed around empowering the victim, giving him or her a chance to be heard while offering the offender an opportunity to make things right, the latter of which has been shown to reduce recidivism.

"If we are really going to understand a student and understand their needs and how to help him, we have to have those connections with their families," says Rico Munn, superintendent at Aurora Public Schools. That's why parents -- a whopping 90 at Duwe's school -- are trained to use restorative justice, too.

ReSolutions has been teaching restorative justice practices in Colorado schools for decades, but hadn't worked in Aurora Public Schools until the Denver Foundation's Cohort facilitated that partnership. Duwe's school started a pilot program last spring whereby 30 teachers and 40 students were trained in restorative justice. "This year, the entire staff was trained from day one," says Duwe, citing some tangible -- and impressive -- results.

Last year in the four months before starting work with the Cohort, AWCPA teachers submitted 260 discipline referrals and made nine suspensions. Those numbers plummeted during the subsequent comparable period, with teachers submitting a total of 20 referrals (a 92 percent reduction) and four suspensions. At the same time, academic performance rose, with multiple data sets showing significant improvement in both math and literacy across all grade levels.

"District leadership in Aurora took notice of these positive changes and contracted with reSolutionaries to support restorative justice in every public school in Aurora," says Park, adding, "That puts Aurora Public Schools in a really impressive leadership position nationwide."

Trauma support

Trauma triggers the fight-or-flight response, and that can make it hard for a kid to sit in her chair during a long school day. In Aurora, in particular, impoverished immigrant and refugee students experience trauma on a daily basis when they worry about when their next meal will come or whether they'll be evicted or subjected to violence. These traumatized children have higher levels of behavioral and social difficulties in school as well as increased dropout, suspension, and expulsion rates.

The Aurora Mental Health Center responds by supporting 10 of the Denver Foundation's Cohort schools with Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) -- a program where psychologists train teachers and parents to understand and identify the trauma response so they can be more empathetic to students and, also, more gentle with themselves.

Most teachers aren't trained in mental health; as such, they might not understand the quandary. What's more, while the children in HEARTS schools are mostly students of color living in poverty, the vast majority of teachers are white, middle-class females. "These teachers might have biases they aren't even aware of," says Park.

Equity training tackles misunderstandings while encouraging trained teachers when to refer traumatized students to a guidance counselor or mental health professional in lieu of delving out a punishment.   

"Overtaxed teachers also have secondary trauma from working with kids dealing with trauma," Park continues, explaining, "The HEARTS counselors help teachers to recognize the trauma response in themselves so they can engage in self-care." Through this secondary element of the programming, teachers and participating parents are equipped with mindfulness tactics. The preliminary impact of HEARTS in partner schools appears strong, with the first reporter, Altura Elementary School, showing a 50 percent reduction in all referrals.

Socio-emotional learning

The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute pointed to socio-emotional learning as one of three approaches that, when coupled with equity work, is proven to reduce both suspensions and racial disparities in suspensions. Based on that research, PassageWorks Institute partnered with North Middle School to implement a whole-student based approach to education.
As Principal Gerardo de la Garza puts it, "Misbehavior often starts with learners' boredom or anxiety, so . . . [w]e are asking teachers to know their students and develop their cultural competency."

The program involves modeling, reinforcing and praising healthy behavior and resisting the criminalization of misbehavior. "Teachers are asked to recognize their own responsibility in interactions with kids and with each other," says Park. They're also trained to monitor and control their own emotions, she adds. "Slowing down that response time in teacher lets a teacher think about what a student is communicating by acting up and allows teachers to do what they really believe in."

PassageWorks also does mindfulness work with teachers, focusing on classroom management and relationship building. And, the nonprofit does equity work at the Cohort's six annual broader meetings, which are designed to support all of the participating organizations and schools via structured, collaborative learning sessions.

But the work is really just getting started, as a parent advisory council and a student advisory council are being established this year. "It's all about working together," says Park.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn. 

This story was produced in partnership with The Denver Foundation as part of a series on giving and philanthropy. Read more stories from this series here.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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