Lowcountry school leaders say they're aware of potential discrimination in discipline, focused on issue
Student discipline and behavior policies have been at the forefront of local school leaders minds for years, so they don't foresee any significant changes as a result of new federal guidance on those issues.
The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released this week non-binding recommendations to help K-12 schools administer discipline without discriminating against racial or ethnic groups.
The 32-page document included a range of suggestions, from ensuring that schools are trying to avoid "exclusionary" penalties, such as suspensions and expulsions, to drawing clear distinctions about the responsibilities of school personnel.
The document is intended to guide districts in their obligations to provide fair and equitable discipline for students. It also explains what factors federal investigators would consider when investigating complaints of discriminatory discipline practices.
Officials in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester 2 schools reviewed the federal information this week and said they were already doing much of what has been suggested.
"It is something that is not new to us," said Kelly Wulf, director of special education for Berkeley County schools. "We've been working on this."
Linda Huffman, the assistant superintendent of administration and personnel in Dorchester 2 schools, said potential discrimination in discipline always is on their radar, and district leaders try to host annual training sessions to boost awareness. The lens through which a student is seen is shaped by the viewer's personal experiences, so teachers and administrators need to be aware of their perspective and ensure they're treating all students the same, she said.
"We try to look at our kids through eyes that are clear," Huffman said.
Nationally, black students with disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended, according to government civil rights data from 2011-2012.
The South Carolina Department of Education has required districts to track the long-term suspensions and expulsions of students with disabilities, as well as that figure broken down by race and ethnicity. That mandate has resulted in some districts paying more attention to the number and making efforts to improve it.
In Berkeley County schools, officials decided to expand their monitoring beyond just special needs students, and they began last year pulling all of the files on children who were being suspended for more than five days. They had conversations with school-based staff on why that was happening and what could be done to address the students' behavior.
District officials have offered and required various training for faculty and staff on how students' misbehavior can be their way of communicating a need, Wulf said.
"We're trying to move from being reactive to preventative," she said.
Jim Winbush, associate superintendent of Charleston County School District's innovation zone, said a majority minority school will have more minorities suspended, so officials have to fairly assess schools. Schools need more programs and resources, such as mental health workers, and it's working on securing grants to make that happen, he said.
"I don't think (Charleston County School District) has a policy that discriminates; I think our policies are for everyone," he said. "My thought is every child deserves a right to a fair and good education, but no child has the right to disrupt the learning of other students."
Bob Stevens, a Charleston specialist who works on behavior management, said ensuring appropriate discipline is more than training teachers; the best behavior strategy is engaging students in learning. The district is using a broad spectrum of efforts that will positively affect discipline, he said.
Most districts have instituted behavior management programs, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, which teaches children how to behave and positively reinforces those lessons.
All Dorchester 2 schools have that program, although some implement it on higher levels than others, Huffman said. Educators try to intervene early and involve others, such as guidance counselors or mental health workers, to find out what is contributing to children making poor decisions.
Out-of-school disciplinary action is a last resort, she said.
"We're trying to do everything we can do to open door for kids and not close doors," she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.