Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

SCHOOLS FINDING SUSPENSIONS INEFFECTIVE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT PROVES A BETTER METHOD OF CHANGING STUDENT BEHAVIOR [Corrected 09/ 05/13] Series: BACK TO SCHOOL: MISSING CLASS

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

SCHOOLS FINDING SUSPENSIONS INEFFECTIVE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT PROVES A BETTER METHOD OF CHANGING STUDENT BEHAVIOR [Corrected 09/ 05/13] Series: BACK TO SCHOOL: MISSING CLASS

Article excerpt

First school officials say how important it is to be in class.

Then they tell them not to come.

More than 30,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to public school students -- some of them repeatedly to the same students -- in kindergarten through 12th grade in Allegheny County alone in 2011- 12, the most recent year for which countywide data are available.

The numbers illustrate the tension between keeping kids in class and keeping schools safe and orderly.

In some schools, more than a third of students have been suspended at least once.

"If you're suspending a third of the kids, that's a huge loss in educational minutes," said Rob Homer, professor of special education at the University of Oregon and co-director of a federal technical assistance center on positive behavioral interventions and supports.

Why do students get suspended?

A report from Regency Park Elementary School in Plum listed these reasons for one-day suspensions: punching another student in the chest, giving a substitute teacher the middle finger, and bullying and insulting another student.

Longer suspensions typically are for more serious offenses. Suspensions may last from one to 10 days. Longer exclusions are expulsions.

Many school districts have student codes of conduct that provide for progressively stiffer penalties for older students, repeat offenders and serious offenses. Such policies often include mandatory exclusions in cases of drugs, alcohol or weapons.

Some schools are finding alternatives to suspension, including practices aimed at preventing misbehavior.

"Investing in preventing problems is more effective and more efficient than simply retribution and responding to problems," said Mr. Homer.

About 1 in 5 of the nation's public schools is using schoolwide positive behavior intervention and supports, including 40 school buildings in 12 school districts, seven charter schools and one special needs private school in Allegheny County.

Mr. Homer said these supports require building a schoolwide culture with clear, consistent expectations of positive behavior. All students are taught specifically what being respectful or other rules mean in the classroom, cafeteria, halls and elsewhere. Extra help is focused on those who struggle with learning the rules.

Using positive behavior supports has proved so effective at Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood that the number of suspensions fell from 425 in 2011-12 to 30 in 2012-13.

At the same time, the percentage of Faison teachers rating the building as a safe environment grew from 52 percent to 91 percent.

"Our teachers believed in it, they bought into it, they designed the systems that were needed for it, and they utilized it," said LouAnn Zwieryznski, who became principal in 2011-12.

At Faison, children are taught specifically how they can become "positives" or "lions;" movement between classes is carefully organized; an academy with a small teacher-student ratio focuses on students who need extra help with behavior; and children caught doing good behavior are publicly praised.

At the daily meeting of all first-graders last week, to the cheers of staff and students, classes were praised for turning in homework, putting proper headings on papers and cleaning up behind themselves in the cafeteria.

"Faison is not an outlier," said James Palmiero, co-director of Pennsylvania Positive Behavior Support and director of the Pittsburgh office of the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, known as PaTTAN.

"Most schools implementing with fidelity and doing the good work Faison did are getting those kind of large changes in their data fairly quickly," he said.

While suspensions are intended to improve student behavior, research shows otherwise, said Russell Skiba, professor in counseling and educational psychology and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. …

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