‘We want our kids to be in school’: Wichita continues efforts to curb suspensions

Wichita school officials say they don’t plan to back away from efforts to curb student suspensions and expulsions, even after the Trump Administration rolled back guidelines aimed at reducing racial discrimination in school discipline.

“It’s pretty simple, really: We want our kids to be in school, because if they’re not in school, they’re not learning,” said Wichita Superintendent Alicia Thompson.

“We are working on plans and strategies throughout the system for academics and for behavior. . . . And we’re starting to see some positive results.”

A federal school safety commission led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a report last month saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline — including boosting alternatives to suspension and expulsion — may have made schools less safe.

DeVos then rescinded guidance issued in 2014, which warned that school districts could face federal investigations if minority students are suspended at disproportionately high rates.

“The Guidance sent the unfortunate message that the federal government, rather than teachers and local administrators, best handles school discipline,” the report said.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe.”

Thompson said the Obama-era guidelines didn’t prompt dramatic changes in Wichita schools, which already had begun rethinking “zero-tolerance” policies and other practices that led to suspensions and expulsions.

And the new directive from DeVos isn’t likely to stop those efforts or result in more kids being kicked out, she said.

“As a district we look at all of our kids — we look at girls, boys, race, academic performance,” Thompson said. “This district is large, we have a very diverse population, and we want each and every one of them to get the best that we have to offer. . . . That’s not going to change.”

‘Restorative justice’

At West High School, psychologist Jan Petersen launched an approach called “restorative justice,” which seeks to help students resolve conflicts with one another or with staff members and, if possible, return calmly to the classroom.

“It’s not that we’ve done away with traditional methods. They’re still really important, because safety is everything,” Petersen said.

“But our focus is on accountability with compassion. . . Through a warm and inclusive, relationship-oriented school environment, we’re going to have better cooperation, better buy-in, better behaviors all across the board.”

Here’s how it works:

If a West High student misbehaves — gets into a loud argument with a classmate, for example, or mouths off to a teacher — that might not result in an immediate trip to the principal’s office.

Instead, teachers are trained to diffuse the situation with a quick conversation, in which they ask key questions: What’s going on? What were you thinking about at the time? Who may have been harmed by your behavior, and what could you do to make it right?

“Sometimes just by listening — by validating a student’s right to feel what they feel and just being willing to listen to their story — they calm down,” Petersen said.

The approach has detractors, Petersen said, including some who call it “kum ba yah” or say you shouldn’t be soft on misbehaving teenagers. But she sees it differently.

“So often when students . . . are suspended and then they come back, nothing has been resolved,” she said. “In fact, they’re probably more angry — angry with their peers, angry with the school — or they’ve been sitting at home playing video games. There’s really nothing instructional or constructive that’s being done.”

Restorative justice is “kum ba yah with an edge,” she said.

“When there’s a problem, we want to focus on: What’s driving it? How can we help? That’s a big change from looking at the surface behavior and just punishing: ‘You’ve violated this rule so out you go, no questions asked.’”

Kevin Kelly, an art teacher at West High, said the school’s approach to discipline prepares students for the real world, where they’ll deal with conflict at work or in personal relationships.

“With the traditional model, somebody steps out of line and they get sent away from the situation, whether that’s to an administrator or out in the hall — away, away, away — go see a counselor, whatever the case may be,” Kelly said.

“This model . . . helps them understand what it’s like to grow up and be an adult, and how to own up to the things we say and do,” he said.

“One comment I make a lot to students is, ‘We’re all going to have to be in here next time, together, so what’s that going to be like?’ It’s about helping them think past that heated moment when they’re not thinking about the future at all.”

Districtwide efforts

Behavioral incident reports from the Kansas Department of Education show a steady decline in suspensions at West High, from 118 in the 2014-15 school year to 81 last year.

Petersen and Rob Simon, who oversee restorative justice at West, have trained other Wichita middle- and high-school administrators about the approach, and that’s having an effect districtwide.

During the first 60 days of this school year, Wichita middle schools recorded 211 fewer office referrals than the same period last year, said Thompson, the superintendent. In high schools, incidents were down by more than 1,200.

Restorative justice is just one prong of the district’s new approach to behavior and its efforts to reduce suspensions, particularly among students of color, the superintendent said.

Since Thompson took the helm in 2017, the district launched Bryant Opportunity Academy, a school for elementary students with behavior problems; started BAASE — Better Academics and Social Excellence — a group aimed at inspiring middle-school boys of color toward college; and formed an administrative committee focused on closing the achievement gap both in academics and behavior.

In Wichita, students of color are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers, a trend that mirrors racial disparities throughout the country.

In Wichita public schools in 2015-16, the most recent year for which U.S. Office of Civil Rights data is available, black students made up about 19 percent of total enrollment. But they accounted for about 32 percent of in-school suspensions, 33 percent of out-of-school suspensions and more than 56 percent of expulsions.

“Closing the opportunity gap is about individual students and groups of students that we need to support,” Thompson said. “We do have work to do, and we will continue to get after it and continue to listen to our community and to the teachers in the field to help us move the organization forward.”