Schools are finding alternatives to out-of-school suspension

Instead of simply kicking out disruptive students, Connecticut’s public schools are increasingly turning to less drastic methods, such as Room 208 at Hartford’s Fox Elementary School, says a report released Thursday.

Fox’s “Responsible Thinking Classroom,” where students write about their misbehavior, is one of many examples cited in a report showing that the number of out-of-school suspensions across the state has begun to decline – dramatically in some cases.

State figures show that 7.1 percent of public school students were suspended out of school in the 2006-07 school year, but that figure dropped to 5.4 percent two years later, according to a 50-page report by Connecticut Voices for Children.

In-school suspensions, Charbonneau, 6-4-10

Robert Charbonneau runs the ‘Responsible Thinking Classroom’ at Fox Elementary School in Hartford (Robert A. Frahm)

The report was done as public schools prepare for a new state law designed to sharply limit the use of out-of-school suspensions. The law takes effect July 1.

“In many cases, disciplining children by excluding them from school is just not effective,” said Alexandra Dufresne, senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children and co-author of the report “Teaching Discipline: A Toolkit for Educators on Positive Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspensions.”

In 2006-07, many out-of-school suspensions were for non-violent infractions such as skipping school or showing disrespect, but schools have begun to use a wide range of alternative approaches to handle such problems, the report said.

At Fox, for example, officials reported a 30 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions after starting the “Responsible Thinking Classroom,” where students who misbehave are required to write answers to questions such as: “The next time you have this problem, what are you going to do?”

“It’s not a punishment and not a reward. It’s just a place [they] can sit quietly and think about the choices they made,” said Robert Charbonneau, a retired corrections officer who supervises the program.

“The teachers love it. The principal loves it,” said Charbonneau, who met Thursday with students such as a first-grader who kicked a table and threw crayons in a classroom. “We try to keep them in school as much as we can.”

The report cited efforts such as mentoring programs, classroom management training for teachers, in-school detention programs, community service requirements, careful analysis of disciplinary trends, and other strategies for improving behavior.

“The good news is that many schools in Connecticut have demonstrated that it is possible to maintain discipline and a positive learning environment without excluding children except in the narrowest of circumstances,” the report said.

Dufresne said, “There are many, many, many options available to schools.”

Among the examples:

  • At Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, officials conducted an analysis of disciplinary data and found that many offenses occurred during unstructured time. As a result, the school shortened lunch hours and study hall time, and the number of days lost to out-of-school suspensions dropped by nearly two-thirds, Dufresne said.
  • Many schools have begun using a program known as “Positive Behavioral Support,” a comprehensive approach that includes steps such as analyzing disciplinary data, establishing clear expectations for student conduct, teaching self-discipline, and acknowledging and reinforcing good behavior. In Bridgeport, where schools had the highest suspension rate in the state in 2006-07, the program is credited with reducing out-of-school suspensions by 40 percent in two years.
  • At Conard High School in West Hartford, ninth-graders are required to take part in a program including instruction in appropriate social behavior. In addition, freshmen who are identified as needing extra support in making the transition to high school are placed in a special study hall and assigned faculty mentors.

Some educators believe out-of-school suspensions should be a last resort.

“In many cases, I’m not sure suspension changes the behavior, so it’s important to come up with programs that address the behavior,” said Robert Fontaine, principal of Middletown High School, where educators have enlisted community leaders to work with students in a mentoring program.

Separate men’s and women’s groups meet with students weekly to discuss problems and plan projects, such as a recent book drive in which high school students delivered and read books to elementary students, Fontaine said.

“Suspension rates and disciplinary rates have dropped significantly . . . probably 50 percent over the last three years,” he said.

According to an earlier study co-authored by Dufresne, state figures indicate that black, Hispanic, low-income and special education students are suspended from school in disproportionately high numbers. She said out-of-school suspensions increase the probability of dropping out of school and contribute to problems such as poor academic performance and juvenile delinquency.

In the latest study, one of the key findings was the “widespread recognition that especially for younger children . . . you have to teach them the [behavioral] skills and be extraordinarily clear in your expectations,” Dufresne said.

“Good discipline has to be taught, just like any other skill.”

She said many schools began efforts to reduce suspensions in anticipation of the new school suspension law.

The law was passed in 2007 but lawmakers delayed putting it into effect until this year because some educators and municipal officials raised objections, saying they feared it was too costly to start new programs. The law permits out-of-school suspensions when a student poses a danger to the school or has a history of serious disciplinary problems and has not responded to other efforts to improve behavior.