By Dean Welliver
Following pressure after it settled a lawsuit alleging it engaged in discriminatory disciplinary practices, Kern High School District cut its number of expulsions in half between 2016 and 2017, district officials reported late last month.
Expulsions dropped by more than 53 percent between 2016 and 2017, with just seven students getting expelled last fall, district officials reported. Meanwhile, involuntary transfers to continuation schools dropped 20 percent.
The report came during a community forum on school discipline and climate the district must host once a semester, a condition of a settlement agreement it entered into after 20 plaintiffs alleged KHSD disproportionately expelled, suspended and transferred minority students from its campuses.
The district has spent the last several years adopting Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports — two approaches that assist school personnel in establishing the social culture and individualized behavioral supports needed for the emotional, social, and academic success of all students.
While the transition to positive intervention methods for student misbehavior is gradual, the KHSD saw a decrease in expulsions and involuntary transfers during the fall 2017 semester.
Camila Chavez, Executive Director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation – one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that alleged discriminatory discipline practices by KHSD, said she understands the implementation of PBIS and MTSS is a huge endeavor and acknowledged the work of the district, for the smooth implementation of the new frameworks.
“I do feel that they are making progress, but more needs to happen when it comes to implicit bias and having teachers and administrators recognize their biases,” Chavez said.
That progress could include reducing racial discrepancies, Chavez said. The next steps, she said, should include school administrators and teachers encouraging students to take leadership roles in planning Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month — two holidays KHSD agreed to recognize as part of its settlement agreement.
“Not all students have that kind of initiative to think that they can do something like that. I think that’s a big missed opportunity and I hope that this recommendation turns into practice because when it comes to those numbers, that’s what I feel is going to help students feel valued and feel like they’re not being discriminated against,” Chavez said.
The district is making progress in reducing the amounts of suspensions, expulsions, and involuntary transfers.
Under the settlement agreement, the district is required to train teachers and administrators on implicit bias. When one attendee asked during the forum whether the board of trustees will also be required to get that training, district officials said they would look into it.
Brian Mendiburu, Director of Student Behavior and Supports for the District, presented data that shows expulsions and involuntary transfers have decreased during the fall 2017 semester compared to the fall 2016 semester.
During the 2016-17 school year, almost 10 percent of all students were suspended. The district has not yet finalized suspension rates for the 2017-18 school year, but reported nearly 5 percent of students were suspended in fall 2017.
The data, however, also shows an unevenness in school discipline across racial demographics.
The rates of suspension for African American students in fall 2017 and the past two school years is more than two times higher than the suspension rates for white students. The number of involuntary transfers for hispanic students during fall 2017 was five times higher than white students, and four times higher than African American students. During fall 2017, three African American students and three hispanic students were expelled while just one white student was expelled.
Jon Eyler, CEO of Collaborative Learning Solutions, which KHSD contracted to assist in its transition to PBIS, explained that while the reductions in suspensions, expulsions, and involuntary transfers may appear small, the implementation of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support framework takes time and will produce a gradual reduction in rates of suspension, expulsion, and involuntary transfers.
Eyler reported that all of the district’s comprehensive high schools and continuation schools have begun implementation of PBIS and MTSS with 15 of the district’s high schools already in their third year of PBIS and MTSS implementation. Eight other high schools are in their second year of implementation.
During the fall community forum on school discipline, some teachers and administrators expressed resistance to the new framework based on concerns about how to keep order in the classroom. Brenda Lewis, associate superintendent of instruction, said the district keeps an open line of communication with the small number of individuals struggling to adapt to the new model.
“Anytime you start a change you know there are going to be those individuals who can immediately see the need for what you are doing, and those that have to be brought along. But a lot of times people don’t really understand and you have to take the time and explain to them and help them to see the big picture,” Lewis said.
In addition to keeping an open dialogue, the district sent has been sending nearly 2,000 staff members to professional development trainings last fall to equip them with the skills to operate in the new PBIS and MTSS model. Roughly 2,000 more will receive training this spring.
The new model, however, has some questioning how teachers can discipline out-of-line students.
If students misbehave, they will face consequences under the PBIS and MTSS model, the difference being that an individualized assessment of the student’s behavior will occur, an individualized intervention plan developed, and if the behavior warrants suspension, it remains an option, Mendiburu said.
Lewis said that she thinks PBIS is working to reduce punitive disciplinary policies because of its focus on the root causes of a student’s misbehavior.
“What we used to suspend kids for, we now have alternatives to. We can provide interventions to them, and have other options.” Lewis said. “It is all about now trying to not only address the negative behavior, but also get to the cause of why the student is acting out the way that they are, and even though the numbers may seem small right now I know there is a much bigger picture taking place with the mindset.”