In order for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to ensure that all students acquire the knowledge, skills, behaviors and attitudes to achieve their learning potential, clear standards must be set for student behavior. We all know our students have a much greater chance of reaching this mission when they attend schools that are safe and free of distractions from learning.
Our Board of Education has adopted a series of policies on student behavior, and all schools have developed school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) teams to set expectations for behavior so that students are aware of permissible and impermissible behavior. PBIS helps maintain effective school-wide disciplinary practices and provide a predictable and safe environment in which students have clear expectations and positive relationships with peers and adults.
While we are working hard to ensure that these disciplinary practices are applied equitably to all students, we are aware that this is not always the case.
A 2014 report conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office, found that widespread racial disparities exist in terms of how students are punished. Data from the past 15 years shows that minority students face a disproportional number of disciplinary actions in schools across the country, from those in affluent suburban neighborhoods to those in the poorest urban areas.
Known as discipline disproportionality or discipline disparity, the U.S. Government Accountability Office calls it one of the most significant problems facing education today. The term describes the inequitable distribution of disciplinary actions in schools including exclusionary practices such as out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions.
There is no doubt these inequitable practices can have a direct effect on the achievement gap that our district is committed to changing. If students are being sent out of the classroom, research shows that each office discipline referral can lead to at least 25 minutes of missed classroom instruction.
Over the past six years, our discipline data has continued to move in a positive direction as the district has moved toward full implementation of PBIS in all schools. Office discipline referrals have dropped in elementary schools by 38 percent since we first implemented PBIS, and by 83 percent in our middle schools.
Though our data is continuing to show promising results, it also identified that we do have discipline response inequities in regards to race. Our greatest inequities occur between our African-American and white students and our Latino and white students.
Our district is committed to putting an end to this inequitable distribution of disciplinary actions in all of our schools. As such, we adopted a strategy last year as part of our Long Range Plan. We are also investigating the merits of a social justice approach to discipline with the help of our Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) students and the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council.
As a result of staff training and focused conversations, we saw a significant drop in out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions and office referrals across the board for all students. The disproportionality of African-American students and white students in out-of-school suspension was still disproportionate, but the gap is narrowing.
This school year, we are continuing to address this issue. We purchased new Second Step kits for all K-5 classrooms. Second Step lessons help our teachers instill social-emotional skills in their students to set them on the path for social success and academic readiness. In addition, a new Code of Conduct is being created – with the help of student input – that will not only have a range of consequences but also interventions for helping students change behavior. In addition, our PBIS teams and Equity teams in all of the schools are working closely together and examining their data quarterly.
Putting an end to discipline disproportionality will require a lot of hard work. Making it a priority for improvement within our district is a big first step. As a district, we are continuing to move closer to eliminating discipline disproportionality and hopefully, promoting positive outcomes for all students.
Tom Forcella is the superintendent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.