How One School District Fights Decades of ‘Punishment Culture’

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A sixth-grade student with curly brown hair walked into the behavior intervention center at Lincoln Middle School and let out a big sigh. She scanned the spare white walls and mustard-colored rug and said, “I was just sent here.”

Kim Shane, the assistant teacher who heads the behavior intervention center (BIC), asked why.

“Because people started saying things that didn’t happen, so I started throwing paint at them,” the student said.

“OK,” said Shane. “Get a reflection sheet and go sit down.”

She then turned to a male student. He sat quietly as he filled out his reflection sheet.

“Are you able to go back or no? I heard you were climbing the bleachers like Spider-Man,” she said.

The student handed her the reflection sheet and went back to class.

Research shows that the more students are suspended, the more likely they are to earn poor grades and drop out of school. They are also more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system. Moreover, suspension is not effective in reducing incidents or increasing school safety.

Like the students who sat in the behavioral intervention room at Lincoln Middle School, many of the students who experience high rates of suspensions and expulsions are black and Latino. Students with disabilities are also disproportionately expelled and suspended.

All of these groups are more likely to receive harsh student discipline in segregated school settings where most students are black and Latino.

To reduce these disparities, Syracuse is taking a new approach to student discipline, called restorative justice practices, which focuses on community-building and conflict resolution instead of punishment to improve the quality of education for students. Without Lincoln’s BIC, one or both of these students may have gone to in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension, where they would have missed more instructional time.

Nationwide, there were 363 open investigations into racial discrimination in school discipline at the K-12 level and 103 investigations open in K-12 involving disability-related discipline issues as of October 27, 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Oakland Unified School District, Denver Public Schools, and San Francisco Unified School District have adopted restorative justice practices, with some success, but there are still only a few major districts embracing this approach.

Illinois’ law on school discipline, which eliminated zero tolerance policies, went into effect in the summer of 2015. This work is still relatively new, so educators and policymakers are watching these efforts closely.

Syracuse School District has the widest poverty gap between its district and neighboring school districts in New York state. The city is very economically and racially segregated, according to a 2014 report from CNY Fair Housing, a nonprofit organization. Compared to white people, Hispanic people and Asian people in Syracuse are more than three times likelier than the city’s white residents to live in poverty and black people were two and a half times more likely, according to the report.

A June 2014 report by an independent consultant, Daniel Losen, who is a policy associate at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, sheds light on Syracuse’s approach to student discipline before it instituted reforms. In the 2012–2013 school year, the district’s suspension rates were very high, even in comparison to districts with similar demographics and district size.

When compared to 32 districts with similar numbers of black students and where black students made up similar proportion of enrollment, Syracuse had the fifth highest suspension rate in the 2009–2010 school year. The average black student enrolled in Syracuse would lose 21.3 days of instruction over the course of their K-12 education.

After the attorney general’s office investigated racial disparities in student discipline, the office and district agreed to a plan to reduce suspension rates and improve the quality of education for Syracuse students.

Poster at Dr. Weeks Elementary School Behavior Room. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Poster at Dr. Weeks Elementary School Behavior Room. Photo by Casey Quinlan

The plan required a commitment to awareness of implicit bias, cultural competency training, and restructuring the code of conduct to include restorative practices.

Restorative practices resolve conflicts and bring students back into the school community.

They also emphasize social-emotional learning, and attempt to foster a better relationship between educators and the families they serve.

Administrators must continue monitoring suspension rates to understand whether new approaches are working or need to be revised.

There is a lot more work to be done, but the latest comprehensive report on the school district’s progress shows that the district reduced suspensions from 22,922 in the 2012–2013 school year to 10,377 in the 2015–16 school year.

The number of out-of-class referrals that were considered restorative versus punitive has increased, according to a district spokesperson.

In 2014, 58 percent of referrals were punitive, compared to 35 percent in 2016. However, black students are still disproportionately suspended, since black students accounted for 66 percent of overall suspensions and white students only accounted for 14 percent of suspensions.

The district is in its second year of a four-year agreement with the attorney general, which costs $10 million a year for the district to comply with.

Patricia Clark, ‎assistant superintendent for student support services, said she is hopeful that with further training and modeling of the right behaviors, administrators and teachers will do the work to reduce racial disparities and disparities between disabled and non-disabled students.

“We have definitely seen a decrease in referral rates and suspension rates,” Clark said. “But our disproportionality remains pretty steady for students with disabilities and students of color, so we are focused on cultural competency practices as well as restorative justice training.”

The school district’s new code of conduct is laid out in a 52-page booklet that describes four levels of behavior, concerns, violations, and responses before out-of-school suspension is considered.

The code makes it very clear that teachers and administrators need to develop an understanding of why a student disrupted class so they can address the root of the issue. Students can resolve conflicts and concerns through restorative mediations and circles.

Behavior intervention center staff help students develop better responses when they get frustrated by something that happened in class.

The code also clarifies the role of “sentries,” or officers who address school safety concerns. Policymakers and the media have focused on the role of officers in schools recently, since there have been high-profile incidents of officers yanking students of color out of desks and slamming them on the ground. In the fall of 2015, an officer in a South Carolina high school threw a black student to the ground and last spring, a Texas officer used force on a Latino sixth grader.

Following recommendations of the Department of Education, released earlier this year, Syracuse’s code of conduct makes it clear that officers should not get involved in minor incidents, such as classroom disruption.

Sentries only intercede in situations where student safety is at risk. The district also recognizes the role of officers in providing guidance to students and staff on law-related issues, as well as conducting student workshops on issues of public safety and the role of law enforcement.

The code also removes some of the potential for subjectivity in judging the severity of students’ behavior. The suspension rates for minor incidents, where individual judgment has a bigger impact than severe incidents, involved far more suspensions of students of color and disabled students.

By removing some of the ambiguity regarding which minor incidents require what type of response, Syracuse school officials hope to reduce the influence of racial bias on suspensions.

Sweeping Changes at Lincoln Middle School

Lincoln Middle School is part of a pilot program with the organization Peaceful Schools, which provides mediation and conflict resolution services in schools.

The program gives Lincoln more support staff to address student behavior and conduct restorative circles. Last summer, the state took the school off of its “persistently dangerous” list.

Dr. Weeks Elementary School. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Dr. Weeks Elementary School. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Suspension rates and referrals shrank from the 2015–2016 school year to the 2016–2017 school year-to-date. Out-of-class referrals fell by 29 percent and out-of-school suspension incidents declined by 16 percent.

Jen Harris, instructional coach at Lincoln Middle School, said administrators are pushing teachers to resolve minor classroom disruptions on their own.

“Sometimes I don’t even go to [the assistant principal] anymore, because I know he won’t give me what I want,” Harris said. “So I have to resolve it on my own. No teacher can go to the administrators and say ‘Do something with this kid.’

“Because it’s like, ‘What have you done restoratively? How have you built a relationship?’”


Syracuse is working on improving the school climate overall by creating school climate teams to monitor progress, and building a sense of school pride and enthusiasm for learning. Heavily segregated schools can feel like prisons; and, too often, teachers — most of whom are white — show students they have low expectations for what students of color can achieve.

Lincoln Middle School is working on improving school pride by calling students “scholars,” providing a school motto, “Good, better, best,” and starting the day with morning announcements that highlight students’ acts of kindness, such as returning someone’s lost purse.

Teachers also have students start the day by gathering in a circle and sharing what they have in common — a practice teachers say cuts down on bullying and builds a sense of community.

In October 2016, ThinkProgress observed students gather for an exercise in their homeroom during which a student recites the phrase “The warm wind blows for…” and share a common interest, activity or description. Students called everyone who wore black that day or played basketball last weekend to come forward.

Then the students who share that interest or quality gathered in the center of the class. Sometimes these morning activities are more serious and allow students to share how they feel about bullying.

Students said that the restorative meetings helped them solve problems in class, such as how they interact with other students or express themselves when they’re upset. The students interviewed by ThinkProgress had all experienced some kind of mediation at Lincoln Middle School. The names of students have been changed to protect their anonymity.

The mediation allows students to express why they reacted the way they did, understand why it violated the code of conduct, and work on repairing relationships with the teachers or peers.

“She [the other student] say stuff and we got over that. Like we still don’t talk … She wants to fight, but we just look past each other … just stay in the zone,” Kayla said of the student she didn’t get along with.

Kayla called her teacher an expletive after the teacher took away her phone, as per school policy. Then Peaceful Schools set up a mediation with the teacher. When asked what the relationship with the teacher was like now, Kayla answered, “We cool. We’re not all that yet, but we cool.”

Students said higher expectations, along with the involvement of the Peaceful Schools team, have improved the quality of education at the school.

“I think the expectations are changing,” a seventh grader, Sam, said.

Strengthening Relationships with Students

When teachers and students participate in morning circles and mediation, they can broach the issue of how some teachers make students of color feel.

Harris, an instructional coach at Lincoln Middle School, said one student began a conversation about racial bias through a morning circle. She said the student talked about “how they’re treated by different teachers, and how they trust different teachers.”

Lincoln Middle School Assistant Vice Principal Richard Richardson is trying to tackle racial bias and disability bias through professional development training on recognizing implicit bias, and through cultural competency training.

“Everyone has implicit bias. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge it,” Richardson said.

Richardson is also working on fostering more positive relationships between students and teachers, so that teachers know students’ lives well enough to realize that, for example, a student may have a good reason for being absent or may be more irritable because a holiday is next week and being home is stressful for the student.

Richardson described an incident where two students were about to get into a conflict, but a teacher stepped in.

Courtney Marx talks to 2nd grade students at Dr. Weekls school. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Courtney Marx talks to 2nd grade students at Dr. Weekls school. Photo by Casey Quinlan

“She was immediately able to say ‘Come with me,’ and the student went right with her because they already had that relationship,” Richardson said.

If the teacher had not stepped in to take the student away from a potential conflict, the student may have gone to in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension, he said.

Richardson, who grew up in Syracuse and knows many of the students’ parents, grandparents, and uncles, said schools should first acknowledge that the majority of teachers in Syracuse public schools come from suburbs and serve a low-income population within the city. As a result, there will be implicit bias, Richardson said, but teachers can overcome their assumptions by getting to know the communities kids come from.

That’s why part of professional development included getting staff out of the school building and into the neighborhood around the school they serve. A scavenger hunt in the city created an opportunity for teachers and administrators to have a positive experience in the impoverished neighborhood of Northside Syracuse.

“If everybody is not coming from the same place, then we need to bridge that gap, and that is some of the work that we continue to spend time doing,” said Richardson.

“…It makes a difference helping adults understand more of our students’ lives.”

The principal of Dr. Weeks Elementary, Carin Reeve-Larham, was sitting in her office with several students during ThinkProgress’ visit. Students who can’t cope with the overwhelming environment of the cafeteria, which can be sensory overload for many of them, come to her office to eat lunch.

During this lunch session, a student, Josh, burst into the room. After the principal told him to close the door and knock, he came back in and said another student, Nathan, “was talking about my mom.”

“Nathan doesn’t know your mom and I will follow up with up him,” Reeve-Larham said.

“I’m going to punch him in the face!” Josh yelled, on the verge of crying.

“You’re not going to punch him in the face,” she said calmly before Josh slammed the door.

Although it may seem worrisome that one student said he wanted to hit another, the student only went to the principal’s office because she built a relationship with him and he trusts her. Josh anticipated that he would be angry and went to an adult for help.

Last year, there were only 16 suspensions at Dr. Weeks, a school of 797 students, Reeve-Larham said, but suspension rates are still racially disparate. The suspension rate may be lower thanks to Dr. Weeks’ social services supports and extended school day.

The school functions as a community school, which means it provides social services to students and their families on campus, such as medical care and advice for parents.

Reeve-Larham said the extended school day makes it much easier to teach students while resolving any classroom disruptions. In a regular school day, it may be more tempting to get the student out of the room as soon as possible to avoid wasting instructional time.

Reeve-Larham said she could use more social workers and support staff to help design behavior management plans for students and make sure all of them receive the support they need. But she also said she knows she is lucky to have two social workers, since many schools don’t.

“We don’t always have enough support enough people to help change that behavior soon enough and so that is the hardest part,” said Reeve-Larham.

“Sometimes, when the problem starts, it’s at such a high level that it’s hard to like get them calmed down enough to drill down and be like ‘So what is really going on here?’”

Elementary school staff encounter different challenges than educators at the middle school and high school level, since, many elementary school kids get frustrated about the same issues, such another child refusing to share, as if it were the first time, every time.

Whereas the behavior intervention center at Lincoln Middle School was a spare white room with a few posters, the BIC at Dr. Weeks is much more welcoming. When you walk into the behavior intervention center at Dr. Weeks, you hear classical music.

Two accent lamps take the place of the harsh fluorescent ceiling lights. A red beanbag chair sits under a poster identifying healthy ways to resolve interpersonal problems.

Another wall displayed posters with cartoon faces representing different emotions, such as angry and sad.

Sometimes behavior staff ask the students to point to one of those faces to identify how they feel at that moment. These posters are also placed next to what are called “cool down corners” in the classroom, where students sit for five to seven minutes to regain a sense of calm. Unlike many “time out” corners, these are close to the center of the room, not isolated from the rest of the group.

At the behavior intervention center, kids sit down and fill out a “reflection sheet” that identifies what they did in the classroom which got them sent to the center.

Then the students explain how it affected their education and their classmates’ education and how they plan to resolve the problem and come back to the classroom community. (Lincoln had similar sheets but required more details from students.)

Renee Mason, who has worked at the school for 18 years, is in charge of the behavior management center.

“In here, we’re coming up with strategies, like what could you have done instead? I have a couple kids who would write [strategies] down on a piece of paper and put it in their pocket. And some say, ‘I tried that and it worked for me,’” Mason said.

Robert Skibinski is in charge of in-school suspension. He said that although he makes it clear suspension is not playtime for students, he compensates for the fact that they’re missing physical education by letting them them do pushups or other physical activities if they lose interest in work. Sometimes the kids in in-school-suspension do role-playing activities to figure out how they can address stressful situations or conflict differently in the future.

Skibinski said the new discipline policies have changed student attitudes.

“I have noticed this year, kids seem to be more invested in making the apology to the whole class, or writing it out to people because they may be shy in front of people,” Skibinski said.

Robert Skibinski and Renee Mason at Dr. Week's Behavior InterventionCenter. Photo by Casey Quinlan

Robert Skibinski and Renee Mason at Dr. Week’s Behavior InterventionCenter. Photo by Casey Quinlan

“The kids know we’re invested and we show up every day because we care about their success. And some of them — knock on wood — we haven’t seen them this year.”

Skibinski and Mason have dealt with challenges, such as teachers sending kids to the room too readily, but they said most teachers understand not to use the BIC room too liberally. Substitute teachers have been more likely to send students to BIC because they aren’t as knowledgable about the code of conduct.

Dr. Weeks Principal Reeve-Larham said it can take a while for teachers to look past what they see as bad behavior and look for the best in their students. But once they do, they’re on their way to being effective teachers.

“If your expectations are defined by the behaviors kids show you, then we’re dead in the water,” Reeve-Larham said. “So you have to know what our kids can do, even if what they show you is the worst stuff, so you can move them to high expectations.

“That’s when we have really successful classrooms, is when teachers are able to see kids for their best selves.”

A Culture of Punishment

The work of restorative justice is easier said than done for many teachers. In October, Jamie Cook, Peaceful Schools’ external school climate coach at Lincoln, hosted a professional development session for teachers on the effects of trauma on students.

Teachers were provided anonymity as ThinkProgress observed so they could more freely participate in the session. Teachers were asked to identify signs that students have experienced trauma. They were also taught to recognize how trauma affects behavior in the classroom. Cook explained that trauma causes students to produce a fight-or-flight response to things that may remind them of said trauma, or a “trigger.” That trigger could an adult yelling at them, since there may be abuse at home.

Cook asked teachers to name different indicators that a child may have had an adverse childhood experience.

“Verbal abuse,” a brunette 40-something teacher said.

“Sexual knowledge beyond one’s age,” a blonde teacher in her 20s mumbled.

“And do you see any food hoarding?” Cook asked.

“Oh yeah,” a few teachers said, nodding vigorously.

One of the teachers told Cook that she works one-on-one with students to get to know them better, but that students don’t feel like there are repercussions for their actions.

“The BIC room was designed not to be punitive,” Cook said. “If we get past the idea that the BIC room is a place for punishment and see it as a place for students to get support, I think that we will be much further ahead in our school community.”

A male teacher in his 30s interjected and said he feels “there aren’t a lot of consequences.”

A teacher who once taught at Danforth Middle School, which was taken off of New York’s persistently dangerous list last year, said teachers should hold students accountable for being inappropriate, but that they have to be careful about reacting too quickly and losing their cool. The odds are that the student will want to fight back in the moment, he said.

“It is difficult. It’s tough as hell. Don’t get me wrong. I heard, ‘Suck my this,’ so many times that it almost did become second nature, but you still have to come back with them, [and say] ‘This is not appropriate,’” he said.

“I wanted to lash back out but it never worked with that group … It was more about having to stop and come back and have a discussion later on.”

The local teachers union, Syracuse Education Association (SEA), has not embraced restorative justice. Last year, the union ran a survey showing teachers were unhappy with the approach and said they felt unsafe. The SEA would not return ThinkProgress’ multiple requests for comment.

Robert Spicer, who does trainings for educators and is working with the Syracuse School District, said it helps to approach discussions about restorative justice by calling it “restorative practices.” Using this phrase makes his trainings friendlier to educators who may not be familiar with justice terminology, he said.

“You need to speak their language,” Spicer said.

He said he ties these practices to education concepts teachers already know, such as social-emotional learning, which helps students learn healthy interaction with peers. Spicer also referenced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,, which reinforce positive behavior instead of negative behavior, to explain how restorative practices are beneficial to students.

Marsha Weissman, senior policy fellow at the Center for Community Alternatives, said it will take a long time for attitudes about punishment to change, but that she’s optimistic Syracuse is taking the right steps to address high rates of suspension.

“Teachers are part of American culture, and America is a very punitive culture,” Weissman said. “We’ve really become addicted to thinking punishment does the trick. It takes time to change those attitudes.”

Weissman said she understands why teachers feel it’s unfair that they should be expected to “do it all,” because poverty isn’t something teachers can reduce on their own. But Weissman said she hopes that teachers don’t “fall into the easy response that this [restorative practices] doesn’t work.”

She said she hopes that when teachers are frustrated because a child’s behavior hasn’t changed, they will advocate for more supports in schools. The easy response would be to reject restorative practices entirely, but that ultimately, it wouldn’t solve the problem, she said.

Where Syracuse Goes From Here

Syracuse has enforced its reforms much more effectively than local advocates and attorneys expected. Hearings to determine whether incidents of school misbehavior should result in long-term suspension used to be handled by administrative staff, but now the district hires hearing officers from New Justice Conflict Resolution Services, a conflict resolution organization funded by the New York Unified Court System. The Center for Community Alternatives automatically handles all cases where students need representation.

When disciplinary cases rise to the level of a superintendent’s hearing and the decision goes against the parents’ wishes, parents can appeal the case. The CCA does not take cases on appeal, so parents may contact organizations such as Legal Services of Central New York for representation.

Susan Young, an attorney for Legal Services of Central New York, listens to the recordings of these hearings to decide whether to take them on appeal. She said she sees fewer findings of guilt than she did before the attorney general reached an agreement with Syracuse schools. Legal Services sometimes handled these cases before the agreement with the attorney general, when students had to scramble to find a representative for their hearing instead of automatically receiving one.

“I can’t say I always agree with their decisions, but they clearly allow all the evidence that should be allowed in and students are given a fair chance to testify and present any witnesses. So I’ve seen a big change in the quality of the hearings and in the number of students who are found not guilty,” said Young. “In the older days, it was a very rare occurrence that a student would be found not guilty.”

Young said she still sees situations where the district makes more serious allegations than she believes are warranted. She gave the example of a student who, after flipping over a chair, was accused of using an object as a weapon with intent to cause injury.

It will take a long time to unlearn the culture of punishment, as well as the racial biases, that contributed to high rates of suspension in Syracuse. As more new teachers come in to schools and learn restorative practices, it will become part of the school culture, district officials say.

It may take three to four years until these reforms become automatic instead of something teachers and administrators “have to grind through,” said Peaceful Schools CEO Lura Lunkenheimer.

She said she read the case histories of other school districts that pursued restorative practices, such as Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, and Oakland Schools to better understand how long it will take for staff and students to fully adjust to the new approach to discipline. Students who have grown up with restorative practices automatically know that they need a restorative circle when they want to discuss something that is frustrating them.

But for now, many Syracuse students are still adjusting to this new system.

“Those incoming sixth graders are coming with knowledge about circles and expectations,” Lunkenheimer said. “So by middle school, you have maybe two-thirds of students who have already been doing this. We will know we’re successful when a kid says, ‘Let’s circle up.’”

Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter for Think Progress, is a 2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story published Jan. 30  for her fellowship reporting project. The complete version is available here.  Casey welcomes readers’ comments.



3 thoughts on “How One School District Fights Decades of ‘Punishment Culture’

  1. As a teacher it took me years to get away from the punishment model of discipline, even for the mundane things like homework and lateness. It was what everyone did.
    The word discipline come from the same root as disciple which implies self-discipline, discipleship, as well as, if not more than, punishment.
    More power to those districts moving in this direction.

  2. I grew up in a suburb outside of Syracuse – a predominately white, moderately wealthy town. For a class in high school, I went to volunteer in an inner-city elementary school. This was the first time I had ever been exposed to the Syracuse school district, even though I lived 5 minutes down the road from the city. The classroom I worked in was predominantly black students with a young white teacher. One of the third graders was wearing a pair of leggings that the teacher informed me she had been wearing all week; they had a very strong urine odor. Another student spoke no English at all. The kids clung to me like glue, just happy to have someone hangout with them. They were the sweetest little things until something triggered them. When someone got upset, that was the end of it. Many students lashed out in a violent manner and were immediately pulled from the classroom and sent to the office. I had never seen anything like it. It was a completely different environment than my school just 5 minutes away. It is no surprise to me that Syracuse has the widest poverty gap between its district and neighboring districts. I love that they are beginning to take a progressive approach to discipline, but I almost feel as if this is not enough. It saddens me that the teachers are so resistant – the students in this district have to overcome so much more than the average suburban student to achieve and they deserve more support and encouragement than they’re given. I understand the frustrations of being an educator, but it’s also important to understand and recognize the background of your students and the experiences they have every day. We need to do more.

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