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Part 3 of ReThink Discipline’s Unintended Consequences
Goals to end the School-to-Prison Pipeline led the Obama Administration to rethink prejudice in classrooms and look closely at the discipline gap between black and white students across the country. The trend, which civil rights leaders worried was becoming inescapable, seemed to push black students from the school yard to the prison yard at disproportionate rates.
Trouble is: Despite good intentions, multiple school systems — with suspension rates down — are experiencing significant and even rising discipline issues.
In 2009, the Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative was set into motion by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Race to the Top is a competition. Only the best proposals will win. We expect the winners to lead the way and to blaze the path for the future of school reform for years and even decades to come. They will make education reform America’s mission,” Secretary Duncan said about the initiative.
In 2011, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice added the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, tying eligibility to receive the RTTT grant money to an additional qualifier: that participating schools study and proactively change the ratio associated with suspension rates between black and white students.
Troubling statistics from the Office of Civil Rights found that, although black students make up only 16% of America’s total school population, for every one white student, four black students are suspended or expelled every year.
To help end this trend, in January of 2014, Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan released a Joint DOJ-ED School Discipline Guidance Package; and in July 2015, together the departments introduced Rethink Discipline, a movement intended to end racially disproportionate suspensions and expulsion rates by specifically closing the discipline gap between black and white students, while training teachers, staff and law enforcement to rethink and change discipline policies and procedures.
Dovetailing right into the guidance for schools set forth by Duncan and Holder, controversial racial diversity training organization, Pacific Educational Group (PEG), fulfilled for Baltimore County Public Schools (and beyond), one of the Departments of Education and Justice’s action plans from the Guiding Principles Action Steps (See Part 1 of this story) which was to “provide regular training and supports to all school personnel” as a way to “administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”
Honing in on the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” cycle, Pacific Educational Group’s founder, Glenn Singleton, attributes unfair discipline practices to white teachers’ preconceptions. Singleton asserts that white teachers’ – particularly old white teachers’ – inherent racism is what clouds their judgment and gives them license to suspend and mistreat students disproportionately, thus thrusting these kids off track during their educational careers.
Before PEG pulled its client list from its website in 2015, almost 200 school systems were listed as working with the San Francisco based company. Along with Baltimore County Public schools and its nearly $600,000 contracted spending authority, school systems in the Green Bay Area of Wisconsin, and Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, were listed as having contracts with PEG, as well as being districts within states that were recipients of RTTT grants.
All three school systems are experiencing significant discipline issues, despite system leaders downplaying the occurrences.
The one-two punch of the well-intentioned ReThink Discipline movement – along with PEG’s palpable influence on school districts across the country – is making America’s schools unsafe.
And with the myopia of number reduction as the goal, districts have allowed chaos and violence to reign in their schools.
“The one-two punch of the well-intentioned
ReThink Discipline movement –
along with PEG’s palpable influence on
school districts across the country –
is making America’s schools unsafe.”
A Tale of Three PEG School Districts:
Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS)
Baltimore County’s reduction in suspension rates – and the story those numbers tell – correlate perfectly with the zero-tolerance discipline policies that began at the federal level and trickled down to its district.
During the 2008-2009 school-year, under the leadership of former BCPS Superintendent Joseph Hairston, the highest recorded in/out suspension and expulsion rate was recorded for African American students in the district: 14,617 students. White students were recorded at 8,570 in/out suspension and expulsions that year.
The following year, BCPS received RTTT grant funds, the acceptance of which mandated that the system study and proactively reduce suspension rates in an effort to close the discipline gap between black and white students.
The suspension rate for that year dropped significantly, signaling the district’s compliance with the grant requirement.
The rate of suspensions and expulsions for African American students was cut by more than one quarter that year (9,700 in/out school suspensions, down from an average of 12,600 black suspensions/expulsions from the four previous years). White students’ discipline numbers dropped from an average of 7,800 over the previous four years, to 4,346.
However, the biggest decrease in suspensions was to occur one year later, during the 2012-2013 school-year, when Dr. S. Dallas Dance took the helm as the system’s superintendent.
Even before increasing supports within the schools to deal with behavior issues, under Dance’s leadership, Hairston’s previous years’ suspension/expulsion rate was slashed by a drastic 40% for black students, and down 50% for white.
Maryland State Department of Education Data:
Under Superintendent Dance, Baltimore County Public Schools brought in Pacific Educational Group and revised the school system’s discipline policies, removing zero-tolerance behavior language, in advance of the state’s admonition to do so in July 2014.
Those 2014 policy changes showed up as an approximate 10% drop in the system’s reported suspension and expulsion data in the same school-year, for both white and black students.
And during a time of its highest student enrollment to that point, Baltimore County Public Schools, in the 2014-2015 school-year, recorded its lowest discipline rate percentage – ever – in the system’s recorded history.
Maryland State Department of Education Data:
Also that year, as found in this University of Maryland College Park Maryland Equity Project report, BCPS was found to be most improved in reduction of African American suspensions, and the second most improved for a reduction in suspensions for the entire student population in the state of Maryland.
Yet, despite the reduction in overall suspensions between Baltimore County’s highest recorded and lowest recorded black suspension percentage rates, while considering the 2.1% increase in the black student population and a 8.59% decrease in the system’s white student population between those years, the black and white discipline gap actually widened under the leadership of Superintendent Dance.
Toward the end of Hairston’s term, black students were suspended and expelled 2x more than their white counterparts; under Superintendent Dance, the gap widened to 3x.
Baltimore’s Fox 45 conducted an investigation into BCPS and found a 35% increase in discipline related to weapons brought to school, with a 26% increase in the 2015-2016 school-year, alone. Yet, Baltimore County’s overall suspension percentage remained at a record low.
Images and videos of elementary, middle and high school students beating each other in bathrooms, cafeterias, hallways, classrooms, in the streets and on public school buses have been prevalent over the last few years in Baltimore County. White students beating white students, black students beating black students. Violence knows no race.
Abby Beytin, President of TABCO, Baltimore County’s Teachers Association
Youth violence is the number one concern reported by TABCO, Baltimore County’s teachers association. Even a year and a half ago, TABCO President Abby Beytin had this to say about the uptick in violence in Baltimore County Public Schools: “With more and more violent acts being aimed at our educators, we can’t wait any longer to address the problems. We have educators across the country being targeted, threatened and bullied by students. These same bullies target, threaten and bully other students and anyone else who gets in their way. In Baltimore County, we have teachers who have been hit, punched, kicked and bitten by students. We even have pregnant teachers who have been threatened verbally by students with ‘having their stomachs cut with a knife.’ We have teachers who have been sent to the doctor, or even worse, to the hospital, because of out of control student behaviors. How much longer are we going to ignore these issues?”
The issue remains a top priority for TABCO, a subject Ms. Beytin continues to bring to Baltimore County’s Education Board, regularly.
The Green Bay Area School District, Wisconsin
Kerstin Westcott, recently resigned Green Bay Area public school teacher
Last month, a 12 year teacher at Washington Middle School in the Green Bay Area Public School District, tearfully resigned during the June 5, 2017 Board of Education meeting.
Stating that she had noticed a downward spiral in her school system which had deteriorated rapidly over the “past five years,” Kerstin Westcott said “I fear for my safety every day. I am equally afraid for the safety of my colleagues, and most importantly my students. We are in danger every day when we show up to our school.”
Westcott went on to say, “Just last week a student told multiple people, multiple times, “I’m going to shoot up everyone in this school.’
Is it going to take someone getting killed for you to finally take the drastic action that is needed?” she pleaded with the Board.
Westcott’s entire twelve and half minute speech, which details the verbal abuse she endured, and the violence and sexually explicit behavior she witnessed for the past five years, can be found here, starting at 133:00.
“I look out to the faces of students in my classroom and I see fear in their eyes. I instructed my students not to answer the door to our classroom, because of the truant students who run the school and come looking for fights. They pound on our doors, shake door handles, scream swearwords into our vents, punch and kick our doors and terrorize us while we are trying to teach and learn. These are just some of the many violent and aggressive behaviors that some of my kids have to deal with every day.”
The Green Bay Public School District had been listed as a client on Pacific Educational Group’s website, until the company removed its client list from public view in 2015.
St. Paul Public Schools, Minnesota
In St. Paul Minnesota, as an effort to combat what was seen to be a racial bias, former Superintendent Valeria Silva of St. Paul Public Schools, made changes to her school system’s discipline policies while tying principals’ $2,000 bonuses to a reduction in suspensions for two years.
Like Baltimore County, and the Green Bay Public School District, St. Paul Public Schools also hired Pacific Educational Group for their diversity training. St. Paul has spent nearly $4.5 million dollars over five years for professional development diversity training for its teachers and staff.
In 2015, Aaron Benner, a teacher who had been undergoing PEG training in St. Paul, found the discipline policies in his schools to be harming students and staff. After being punched by a student, and having that student return to his class ten minutes later without consequences, he was perplexed to find a lack of support from his school’s administration.
Benner went public, appearing in television and radio interviews, speaking to the changes in discipline polices in his school system – that changed under the premise of “equity” – and the direct correlation between those recent discipline policy changes and increased behavior issues within his school system.
Benner asserts that PEG’s version of equity is a damaging version, not reflective of true equity designed to help students needing support.
Aaron Benner, St. Paul Public Schools’ May 2014 Board of Education Meeting
In May of 2014, Benner delivered a speech to his school district’s Board of Education about their discipline policy changes. Benner’s speech, which started by quoting Martin Luther King, resulted in cheering and applause.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day be judged by the content of their character, but not by the color of their skin… I’m here again because I believe we are crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students. I am here because black students can and should behave in any classroom, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity of their teacher… Cussing out your teacher is not black culture. Refusing to do work is not black culture. Not following directions is not black culture. Hitting other students is not black culture. And assaulting your teacher is not black culture. So I’m asking this school district to ask the black community – my community – ‘what is black culture?’”
Benner’s entire speech can be found here, starting at 17:45.
“My school district sold our soul to PEG,” Benner told The Baltimore Post.
“PEG’s term of ‘equity’ only includes African Americans – but you never hear about Hispanics, Asians, etc.”
Slightly higher in percentage than the African American student body at St. Paul Public Schools’, are students of Asian descent, with a great number of those students hailing from Thailand and Laos. Benner says it is a subgroup of the student population that has been ignored during this move toward “equity,” led by PEG.
Between 2011-2015 Benner said he witnessed a fourth grader throw another student against the wall, breaking his nose. He saw elementary school aged boys walking down the halls, grabbing girls’ breasts. Also commonplace were instances of fighting drawing blood, and destruction of property in the middle of classes. All of these acts occurred without consequence.
“My school district sold our soul to PEG,”
Benner told The Baltimore Post
The 23 year veteran teacher and now Dean of Students at a St. Paul Catholic School, Benner went on to tell The Baltimore Post that “students need to abide by the laws of the school. They have to abide by the laws of our community. If you ignore behavior, you’re not doing the kids any favors. Kids want structure; they need structure.”
While still working at St. Paul Public Schools during 2011-2015, the veteran teacher said that teachers were no longer teaching, but were just trying to maintain safe classrooms. “We were not worried about math and reading. We were protecting our classes. I was busy protecting my class. This is criminal behavior,” he said.
Regarding the diversity training sessions, Benner refers to PEG’s Courageous Conversations as a “one-sided conversation,” and that “black people are not ‘monolithic,’” as PEG’s founder makes them out to be.
“These kids have trauma; trauma starts at home. Kids must be taught simple behavior guidelines,” he asserts. “Good teachers have routines and rituals set by third week of school. Teachers should set boundaries on ‘Day 1’: ‘We are going to agree to respect each other, be fair…’”
As for PEG as a solution, Benner says that “racism exists and I deal with it daily, but PEG is not the expert on race relations.”
“PEG is harming the people that it says it represents,” he said.
Benner believes that kids with behavioral issues need to be put in an alternative setting, with the goal being to mainstream them. Either an alternative school or an alternative program within the school building.
And as for the system’s superintendent, Valeria Silva, she was fired by St. Paul’s Board of Education last summer due to disagreements over the school system’s budget, declining enrollment and student discipline problems.
Benner is currently in litigation with the school system due to retaliation his EEOC case found he suffered as a result of bringing the school district’s out of control violence to light.
St. Paul’s local NAACP chapter is backing Benner in his fight.
Rethinking Rethink Discipline
Rethink Discipline aimed squarely to end the obstacles that prevent the success and achievement of students of color and those with disabilities. But the results in some school districts make it appear as though schools are trying to fix their spreadsheets.
The intention was to end a cycle of what was seen to be prejudice-inspired punishments, and to bring awareness to the disparate nature of white and black suspensions.
But, instead, has the approach unintentionally thrown us all into a state of denial? Should Rethink Discipline be rethought? And should Pacific Educational Group be permitted to continue influencing school systems and their discipline practices?
PEG’s founder, Glenn Singleton, says in his books that one example of “institutionalized racism is zero-tolerance discipline policies.”
But is removing zero-tolerance behavior polices from school systems actually helping or hurting students?
“We went from no tolerance to no consequences. It makes no sense!” St. Paul teacher, Aaron Benner said.
“Even well-intentioned programs have unintended consequences; and when they do, the programs need to be stopped!”