Missouri school districts eschew suspensions, turn to calming disciplinary techniques

Jul 27, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 11:17 pm

St. Louis-area school districts are in the midst of a discipline revolution. After the Ferguson Commission in 2015 recommended banning suspensions for students in kindergarten through third grade, schools began looking at how to address the root causes of difficult behavior.

Twenty-one districts pledged to at least attempt to reduce suspensions, and two have followed through, but officials say it can be tough to do without substantially investing time and money.

The Maplewood Richmond Heights district is starting its ban next month, as school begins. It’s part of a district-wide shift in approaching discipline that has been implemented over the last five years.

One change is the addition of a “chill zone” in some classrooms and the Student Success Center, meant for students who are at risk of dropping out.

When students need to regroup, they can choose to spend 15 or 20 minutes in a comfy chair, separated from the rest of the room by a divider.

Katey Finnegan, 18, credits the chill zone — and the close relationships she built with her teachers at the success center— for helping her graduate in May. Finnegan worried so much about her grades that she avoided school before taking part in the program during her senior year.

“If you’re having like a rough day and you’re kind of not feeling like talking to anybody you just go here and kind of just breathe, kind of relax, get yourself back together,” Finnegan said, standing next to the chill zone. “It made it easier for me to think, like, ‘Oh, I don't want to leave.’”

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Another example of the district’s new approach is the middle school and high school’s rebranded, in-school suspension program. The Blue Devil Etiquette Room, a nod to the district’s mascot, is now a place for self-reflection, not punishment, middle school principal Michael Dittrich said.

“Our goal is to bring them in here and focus on the relationship, and how do we repair that. So, what harm is done, and how do we repair that harm,” Dittrich said. “When I send a student down here, they say, ‘Well how long am I going to be here?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. That’s up to you. I need you to process through this. I need you to repair the harm with, you know, if there was a victim. And when you’re ready, that’s when you’ll come back.”

The idea behind these spaces is that, often, students act out instinctively if they get upset due to life experiences, said Melissa Fuoss, the woman spearheading Maplewood Richmond Heights’ new approach to discipline.

“With little kids maybe biting, pushing, hitting, those kiddos are in the survival state of their brain, so it’s not a time to, you know, give them choices or make them solve the problem,” Fuoss said, referring to a theory known as the brain state model. “It’s our job to help them de-escalate first.”

Fuoss and her staff first began learning de-escalation techniques, such as deep breathing, four years ago with the help of a consultant. Plus, the district has two therapists to help students work through difficult situations, like losing a parent.

Superintendent Karen Hall said she found the money for training and more staff because it was a priority.

“I'm not rolling in cash. Don't get me wrong. But I'm intentional,” Hall said. “You can reallocate what you’re currently doing. You can look at your existing staff and say, well, you know what, we want to have a different position. So that’s what we’ve done.”  

Maplewood Richmond Heights spends about $2,500 less per student than St. Louis Public Schools, which quickly implemented a ban on early-grade suspensions last year.

SLPS gained notoriety for giving out the most suspensions in Missouri to students in kindergarten through third grade. Deputy Superintendent Stacy Clay said the first year of the ban was a challenge for teachers and principals.

“Philosophically, we believe we're moving in the right direction. As you might imagine there have been some practical challenges related to it. We do still have students who are presenting some very challenging behaviors,” Clay said. “That can be tearing down a bulletin board or they could be bothering other students in a way that is disruptive and very distracting to the school environment as a whole.”

About half of the district’s elementary schools have changed their in-school suspension rooms to reflection rooms that operate like Maplewood Richmond Heights’ chill zones. But Clay said many students need more than a calm place to go when they’re upset because they’ve experienced violence or some other form of trauma.

“Ideally, every elementary school would have its own therapist,” Clay said. ”With a district of our size it's just hard to do. It's just hard to do with nearly 70 campuses. And nearly, you know, over 40 elementary campuses.”

St. Louis Public Schools and Maplewood Richmond Heights are paving the way for at least two other school districts. Ladue and Normandy have pledged to end early-grade suspensions in the 2018-2019 school year.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille

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