THE FIRST TIME THAT principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline. This is how it went down:
A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:
“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?” He gets even more specific: “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?”
The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated
defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: “My dad’s an alcoholic. He’s promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises.” The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: “I shouldn’t have blown up at the teacher.”
And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.
“The kid still got a consequence,” explains Sporleder – but he wasn’t sent home, a place where there wasn’t anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn’t do. He went to ISS — in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk about anything with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.
Before the words “namby-pamby”, “weenie”, or “not the way they did things in my day” start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:
2009-2010 (Before new approach)
- 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
- 50 expulsions
- 600 written referrals
2010-2011 (After new approach)
- 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
- 30 expulsions
- 320 written referrals
“It sounds simple,” says Sporleder about the new approach. “Just by asking kids what’s going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away.”
The dark underbelly of school discipline
Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment.
First. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids — 3,328,750, to be exact. Since the 1970s, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, the suspension rate’s nearly doubled for white kids, to 6%. It’s more than doubled for Hispanics to 7%, and to a stunning 15% for blacks. For Native Americans, it’s almost tripled, from 3% to 8%.
Second. If you think all these suspensions are for weapons and drugs, recalibrate. There’s been a kind of “zero-tolerance creep” since schools adopted “zero-tolerance” policies. Only 5% of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs, said the NEPC report, citing a 2006 study. The other 95% were categorized as “disruptive behavior” and “other”, which includes cell phone use, violation of dress code, being “defiant”, display of affection, and, in at least one case, farting.
Third. These suspensions don’t work for schools. Get rid of the “bad” students, and the “good” students can learn, get high scores, live good lives. That’s the myth. The reality? It’s just the opposite. Says the NEPC report: “…research on the frequent use of school suspension has indicated that, after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.”
Fourth. They don’t work for the kids who get kicked out. In fact, these “throw-away” kids get shunted off a possible track to college and onto the dead-end spur of juvenile hall and prison.
“Studies show that one suspension triples the likelihood of a juvenile justice contact within that year,” California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the California Legislature last month. “And that one suspension doubles the likelihood of repeating the grade.”
Fifth. All these suspensions have led many communities to create “alternative” schools, where they dump the “bad” kids who can’t make it in regular public school. Lincoln High School was set up as one of those alternative schools.
How Mr. Sporleder stumbled across an epiphany in Spokane
It’s the Spring of 2010, and Jim Sporleder’s mind more or less silently exploded.
This is the guy with 25 years experience as a principal. In Walla Walla, he’s got a rep for really connecting with kids. He preaches “discipline with dignity”.
John Medina – a developmental molecular biologist who’s an improbable cross between an old-time rip-snortin’ preacher and Jon Stewart – just drilled a hole in Sporleder’s brain and dropped this in:
Severe and chronic trauma (such as living with an alcoholic parent, or watching in terror as your mom gets beat up) causes toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kid’s brains. When trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible.
Sporleder was three years into an exhausting stint as principal of the Lincoln Alternative School. He’d asked for the position after reading a report about the troubled school. The report quoted a couple of Lincoln High’s kids: “We’re the dumping ground,” one said. “Who cares about us,” another said. It wasn’t a question.
“That report riveted me,” says Sporleder. “I’m a person of faith. I felt called to come over here.”
Gangs controlled the school. It had only 50 students, but they were the toughest in the school system – the kids who’d been kicked out of other schools. Lincoln was their last chance.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” recalls Sporleder. “We had some pretty rough kids. It took me quite a while to get on top of that.”