KALAMAZOO, MI – Kalamazoo Public Schools is finding alternatives to suspension and expulsion as forms of discipline, while an organized group of parents are frustrated with continued violence in the classroom.
Superintendent Michael Rice said the district wants to reduce the time students spend out of school because exclusionary discipline often sets the stage for students to become disenfranchised, under-perform and ultimately drop out.
A local emphasis on correcting unruly behavior in the classroom aligns with a recently-signed state law that tones down “zero tolerance” policies in regard to punishment.
Despite a steady increase in enrollment, the number of expulsions, exclusions and suspensions in Kalamazoo schools have decreased since 2006. However, instead of a straight decline, these figures ebb and flow each year.
Because a school reflects the community it serves, Rice said each year is unique. Since he joined the district in 2007, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions decreased before rising again around 2011.
Now, the number of students told to stay home are on the decline again.
Cause and effect
Gwendolyn Hooker and other Kalamazoo parents remain unconvinced the school district has done enough to address bullying.
Last spring, Hooker’s eight-year-old granddaughter Justyce Calvert was the victim of a series of attacks that occurred at Northeastern Elementary School.
In the last week of the 2015-16 school year, a third-grade boy beat Justyce on the playground, resulting in a fractured nose and two black eyes.
The attack prompted a Kalamazoo Township police investigation and an attempt to file charges on Hooker’s part, however the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to pursue the case because of the age of the boy, who was suspended until the end of the year.
Once the new school year started, so did the abuse. The school scheduled a meeting with the parent of the boy to address the first incident and it was decided that a no-contact rule would be established between the two children.
A second, then a third incident involving two boys kept Justyce out of school for a few days. The boys were suspended but returned to school in less than a week.
Justyce and her younger sister, Jaide, transferred from Northeastern Elementary to Edison Elementary in September. Jaide is diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder and receives learning accommodations, though Hooker said it took four months to implement the accommodations at the new school.
Hooker said the district failed to keep her granddaughters out of harm’s way, which created a hostile environment and ultimately affected their education.
She isn’t alone.
Each week, a group of students and parents meet around a white table, neatly set with plates candy and snacks, in Hooker’s office at the Northside REcovery and REsource Center.
A back room in the office serves as the board room for the Justyce Against Bullying Club — an after-school group created for students to openly discuss their own experiences and promote a culture of respect in Kalamazoo schools.
“If kids get bullied they can talk,” Justyce said. “It helps because the same thing happened to me. Together, we can stop bullying.”
A basic conflict de-escalation technique is taught to the kids, starting with verbally defending themselves before telling an adult, then telling their parent and finally finding a way to express themselves constructively about the incident.
Some students dance or sing. Justyce likes to write in her journal.
Parents are finding their own ways to express themselves.
Less than a dozen parents addressed the district’s Board of Education during its March 9 meeting to introduce the goals of Social, Economic Educational Change, an organization affiliated with Michigan United. George White, a foster parent who has sent his children to Kalamazoo schools for 34 years, said he plans to bring parents to every board meeting until their concerns are dealt with.
White also ran unsuccessfully for a KPS trustee position in 2016. He said SEE Change wants to assist the board in implementing policies that employ a restorative justice approach to discipline.
Other goals include reducing the need to restrain unruly students and decreasing the number of expulsions and suspensions. Bullying should be addressed by tackling the underlying issues that cause a student to lash out, Hooker said, not necessarily through straight-forward punishment.
However, the group says school officials have been unresponsive to parents who are concerned their children are being habitually victimized. Hooker said she has sent more than 50 letters and emails from parents to trustees, most of which have received no response.
Angela O’Day also felt forced to transfer her daughter Savannah from Edison Elementary to Woodward School for Technology and Research this year.
The eight-year-old girl was pushed on the ground by a boy in her class, who ripped off her shirt. O’Day says her daughter was sexually assaulted.
“The school didn’t even call me,” O’Day said. “She had to sit in the classroom with the boy for the rest of the day.”
Savannah has been attending J.A.B. Club meetings since the incident.
“The student who was bullied has to move? It’s unfair,” O’Day said. “(My daughter) feels like she did something wrong. She went to the same school since kindergarten and now we have to start all over.”
This year, the J.A.B. Club plans to reach 100 people to raise awareness about bullying. A youth event is planned on April 5 at the Northside REcovery and REsource Center on 118 E. Paterson St. The Boys and Girls Club and other local organizations will offer summer employment opportunities and trauma resources.
There is one thing that all of the parties seem to agree on: Mental health and past traumas are a key source of misbehavior and bullying.
Director of Student Services Nkenge Bergan and Director of Special Education Rikki Saunders said KPS staff have worked hard to find creative solutions to behavioral problems.
Under the district’s prohibition of bullying policy, all students are protected from written, verbal or physical acts intended to harm. It also prohibits the retaliation or false accusation against a target of bullying, a witness, or another person with reliable information about an act of bullying.
Most minor issues are managed at the classroom level without an office referral. Meanwhile, KPS has also reduced non-mandatory expulsions and the length of suspensions.
“Every child is an individual,” Bergan said. “If you lay a blanket consequence to a situation, you might be shooting a cannon at an ant — and that isn’t necessary. Some children can respond immediately to a quiet, soft intervention and other kids you might need to try a different approach.”
Culturally responsive education training has been a recent effort to help a predominantly white teaching staff understand the perspectives of an ethnically diverse student body.
In testimony to the Senate Education Committee on March 7, Rice said teacher education programs at Michigan universities are light or devoid of courses on classroom management, relationship building and cultural competence.
School climate and culture initiatives at KPS have helped decrease the use of punishment that would have kept students out of school in year’s past, he said.
Rice also said there is a “profound lack of student mental health support” in schools across the state.
Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services works with KPS and schools throughout the county to develop strategies for students who have behavioral issues.
“Teachers have a huge responsibility that many times they are not geared to address,” said Jeff Patton, chief executive officer of KCMHSAS.
Mental health liaisons work with teachers and make referrals for students who they believe could have underlying mental health issues. Behavioral problems are often a sign that something else is going on, Patton said, possibly abuse at home or past trauma.
“We can’t just assume a child is lazy or doesn’t want to be (at school),” Patton said. “We can’t just assume a child has not been exposed to trauma, whether that is domestic violence, bullying, or being physically or sexually abused.”
However, Patton said the office does not diagnose children because their brains are still developing.
White said he’s had foster children who were considered to be bullies but improved their behavior with adequate resources. They weren’t bullies, White said, just kids reacting to their trauma.
“The biggest issue is that in our neighborhoods there are things that take place but as parents, we deal with those issues and protect our children,” White said. “Then they go to school and an institution where they believe that sort of thing is non-existent. (Students) find out that not only does it exist, it’s perpetuated. It becomes minimized and normalized.”
Tammie Woods, Earl Moore and other parents in SEE Change said their children are being kept out of school for inordinate amounts of time for misbehavior. Their children have are diagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities, which have caused them to miss months of class at a time.
A law signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in December will give school administrators more flexibility in dispensing discipline. Under the new law, schools will be able to consider factors like a student’s age, disciplinary history and whether the student has a disability.
It also encourages schools to use “restorative practices” instead of – or in addition to – suspensions or expulsions.
The Michigan Department of Education created an outline for schools to incorporate restorative justice, the recommended approach to address conflict and misconduct. Restorative justice models focus on healing rather than punishment.
One example of a restorative justice practice is to establish a meeting between a bully and victim. The offender is given an opportunity to accept responsibility, apologize and set consequences to repair the harm done.
Suspensions last between one and 10 days. Rice said the most frequent causes of suspension in schools across the state are insubordination, defiance and disruption.
In KPS, the most frequent causes of suspension are repeated disruptive behavior, potentially harmful behavior to oneself or others and fighting.
Of the 11,367 students enrolled for the 2006-07 school year, 28 percent were suspended for at least one day. Last year, 18 percent of the district’s 12,834 students were suspended for at least one day.
A total of 2,347 students were suspended for the 2015 academic year.
While student suspensions decrease, a significant disproportionality exists between the number of African American students suspended compared to other ethnic groups.
According to the Office of Civil Rights, African American students are suspended at a rate three times greater than white students nationally. Therefore, a growing field of research suggests “zero tolerance” discipline has a disproportionate impact on minority groups.
KPS follows similar trends.
In 2006-2007, 72 percent of KPS students suspended were black or multi-ethnic, while only 20 percent were white. Although suspensions among all ethnic groups have declined since, the gap continues to widen.
Last year, black and multi-ethnic students were suspended at a rate five times greater than white students.
Exclusions and expulsions
Exclusion refers to a student removed from school for 11 to 179 days. Students excluded from KPS are provided home instruction to maintain their academics during time away from school.
Last year’s 34 exclusions were the lowest amount administered in the last four academic years but is still twice the amount in 2007.
Michigan requires schools to expel a student for 180 days if they commit dangerous acts like assaulting staff members, possessing weapons, committing arson or criminal sexual conduct.
All 10 expulsions last year were required. There were 64 expulsions in 2006 and almost 50 in 2014.
The combined number of expulsions and exclusions decreased 44 percent since the 2006-07 academic year, while the number of suspensions decreased by 36 percent.
Bergan noted “discipline” and “disciple” share the same root word. Students need to be present in the classroom to learn better behavior, she said.
Some possible alternatives include a phone call to parents or parent/teacher conference, after-school and lunch detentions, suspensions from co-curricular activities, community service around the school and written apologies.
“We are trying to get the most out of and for all of our young people,” Rice said. “We’re cognizant of the challenges our young people are going through, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that it is hard to learn outside of school.”
Before returning from an expulsion, students are usually required to attend three to five counseling sessions. The student then meets with a small committee of members of the board of education, their parents, teacher and Bergan to review the student’s readiness to return.
Bergan said sometimes students are not ready to return and are asked to complete additional counseling.
Rice said his district must balance allowing troubled children to stay in a structured environment with maintaining the safety of the school. However, the superintendent said students are not allowed to continue violent behavior.
“We don’t tolerate bullying,” Rice said. “If we are informed that bullying takes place we deal with that very swiftly. We will investigate and deal with the child who is bullying.”
That’s a rosy picture, Hooker said, which doesn’t represent the experiences of her granddaughter and others who have “slipped through the cracks.”
“It’s frustrating because we’re left with trying to figure out how to make the situation better when you’re going to a school where you know the administration doesn’t care enough to call you,” she said.