While Gov. Bobby Jindal might be casting a large net for his education reform package, it has so far failed to snare anything related to school discipline.
By Jeremy Alford
If you believe the polling, the public isn’t sweating school discipline issues too heavily. According to a PDK/Gallup poll conducted last year, the American public may actually care less than ever. Only 6 percent felt that a “lack of discipline” was a real problem — and that’s down from 11 percent in 2006 and 15 percent in 2001. More times than not, funding issues or teacher quality top such lists.
But if you ask the public directly about the issue of school discipline, then numbers trend differently. In another 2011 survey from Rasmussen Reports, 68 percent of participants defined discipline in public schools as “too easy.” In a separate query, 78 percent maintained that, compared to when they were in school, it’s more difficult for teachers today to maintain discipline in the classroom.
It’s also a topic that resonates on the political front lines. “Discipline is clearly a huge problem in the classroom,” says Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. “Time and time again, teachers tell us that this is one of their top priorities.”
The problem stories are out there. Anyone with an Internet connection can find them. Students at Zachary High School were expelled for a sexually oriented hazing incident. In Brusly, a student was recently suspended and kicked out of the honors club for criticizing a teacher on Facebook. Now the student is suing the school system. In Jefferson Parish, officials are under fire for having students arrested for “minor school disciplinary matters.”
It’s all in a day’s work for professional educators. In fact, Louisiana’s public schools expel students at five times the national rate, based on a report compiled by Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. Within the Recovery School District, the expulsion rate is 10 times higher.
But from a statewide perspective, 8,501 fewer students were expelled or suspended during the 2010-2011 school year as compared to 2005-2006. So while the Bayou State is trending above the national average, data sets issued by the state Department of Education show that Louisiana is also dishing out fewer expulsions and suspensions — combined — than ever before.
The end results — that is, the payoff for this model — are difficult to quantify. There are cases where good-natured students are pushed out of the school system and head down dangerous paths that lead to incarceration; in other cases, some of the worse offenders are allowed to remain in the system, creating all sorts of challenges and distractions.
That said, the issue is noticeably absent from all of the major education reform agendas being proposed for the regular session that convenes March 12. Moreover, Gov. Bobby Jindal has only made passing mentions of discipline in his recent education speeches.
Like Appel, House Education Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, says he hasn’t heard a peep about any major discipline-related bills that might crop up this year. “The concern is always there, and there are certainly people out there working to come up with solutions,” Carter says. “But I haven’t heard about anything substantial being worked on for the session.”
That means the ideas will have to come from outside the inner circles. Enter Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux, a member of the House Education Committee who has no party affiliation. He has introduced House Bill 312 to “permit” — rather than require, as stated in existing law — local school systems to place suspended or expelled students in alternative education programs.
Richard says the only reason he filed the bill is because there’s a lack of related discussion. “The governor has his package, and I think it’s a great start. But we need to take a look at discipline, too,” he says. “That is the biggest problem we face in public schools. The idea that kids can be arrested for certain crimes and then the principals have to let them back in some cases needs to be fixed. The principals need more control over who is allowed to re-enter their schools.”
While suspensions and expulsions have decreased over the past five years in Louisiana, in-school suspensions represent the only category that has increased, from 80,500 in 2005-2006 to 83,700 in 2010-2011, the state Department of Education has found. In theory, Richard’s proposed law would curb this figure by giving local school boards an option in regard to placing these students in alternative programs — or sending them home.
Many parents, who would potentially be on the hook under Richard’s legislation for their child’s care during their eight-hour workday, will surely find fault with this idea. “There’s nothing easy about this. But we have to try,” Richard says. “I understand that there should be exceptions in certain cases, and I’m going to look at that. But we can’t allow students to disrupt our classrooms. Where do they belong? Do they belong at home? It’s tough to say, but I am going to make sure we have that conversation during the regular session.”
The concept is especially troubling to certain nonprofit groups like Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. FFLIC has been particularly active in the New Orleans area over the past year or so, hosting rallies, publishing reports and overseeing other outreach.
Executive Director Gina Womack argues that schools are using expulsions, arrests and alternative-school referrals as a way to rid their classrooms of “unwanted” children. Moreover, she says the increase in out-of-school disciplinary tactics and the increase in children being incarcerated in Louisiana shows a correlation that proves the existence of a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Womack adds that Louisiana ranks near the bottom in high school graduation rates and has the highest incarceration rates in the U.S. Groups like FFLIC are concerned that school discipline sometimes pushes the proverbial envelope too far.
For example, FFLIC points to data that shows each year more than 25 percent of Louisiana students are put out of school for “willful disobedience,” which includes suspensions of students in elementary grades for very minor “infractions” like being out of uniform. In the 2009-2010 school year alone, there were more than 14,600 Louisiana students suspended for being habitually tardy or absent.
Supporters thought they had a solution last year when Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, passed legislation through the House and Senate to reduce suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions by encouraging schools and districts to use positive intervention tools and strategies, such as restorative justice and peer mediation.
Jindal, however, vetoed the bill. He said at the time that “nothing in current law prevents a school board from deciding to reduce the use of suspension or expulsion, speed up the expulsion hearing or hold parent-teacher conferences in a timelier manner.”
In 2003, a law known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act was implemented as a means to reducing juvenile incarceration. It has several mechanisms, including an in-school program that’s reward-based. Even though the law has been on the books for nine years, in-school suspensions continue to rise, if viewed from a five-year perspective.
In 2008, state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek queried the Parish Superintendents’ Advisory Council on several pieces of discipline-related legislation. In return, parish superintendents expressed outrage and agreed that they didn’t want the Legislature telling them how to handle discipline problems. It was a watershed moment as far as policy goes, and that independent spirit remains today.
It’s among the reasons school discipline is a third rail issue in politics. But this year, as Jindal pushes an aggressive education package to overhaul tenure and accountability, the formula is stickier than usual. The Jindal administration is taking on the teacher unions, and any signs of support for discipline legislation might take pressure off teachers. “It shows that students and parents might be the problem, not teachers,” says one official involved in the ongoing education negotiations. “They’re not going to do that.”
That means, at least for now, Richard may end up having the only game in town. Appel, the top education leader in the Senate, says he’s looking forward to hearing the debate over Richard’s bill. But, to be sure, he hopes it won’t be the only and final word on the issue. “I’ll be interested in following it,” Appel says. “And I’ll be interested in knowing if there will be any other discipline bills introduced. I would certainly welcome them. We just have to wait and see.”
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge. You can contact him through his website, www.jeremyalford.com. A version of this story first appeared in New Orleans’ Gambit.
While much of the talk was about whether New Orleans could win a big game — or any game, for that matter — on the road, the conversation in the Saints' locker room was about something completely different.
State health officials told thousands of doctors planning to attend a tropical diseases meeting this weekend in New Orleans to stay away if they have been to certain African countries or have had contact with an Ebola patient in the last 21 days.
Republicans are calling on Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu to apologize after she suggested Thursday that President Barack Obama's deep unpopularity in the South is partly tied to race.
Compared to the rest of the country, Lafayette has it pretty good when it comes to the cost and speed of our Internet.
Hello Kitty turns 40; police ambush suspect caught; Knicks surprise Cavs and more national and international news for Friday, October 31, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
The Lafayette City-Parish Council will consider on Tuesday a revised plan to the transform a block in Downtown Lafayette into a mixed-use residential-retail-commercial development that doesn’t include giving title to the property to the Lafayette Public Trust Finance Authority, an arrangement the council rejected earlier this month.
Trying to combat the national undertones of Louisiana's U.S. Senate race, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu is traveling the state this week on a sort of pork celebration tour, telling voters about the projects and aid she's delivered to Louisiana.
Ever thought that big, pink Gulf coast shrimp you ordered at the restaurant or bought from the store didn't taste juicy or salty enough? Maybe it wasn't from the Gulf.
The state treasurer won't sign financial documents needed for $200 million in borrowing or for a refinancing of existing debt until he believes they accurately explain the surplus disagreement.
Homecoming outfits with ease
Acadian style home in St. Martinville or traditional Breaux Bridge home
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Bill Cassidy voted for 97 percent of the bills signed by Barack Obama.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is joining South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on her campaign bus tour.
A New Iberia man has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a 4-year-old girl and scalding her 3-year-old brother.
A district judge decided Wednesday against sanctioning attorney/school board candidate Dawn Morris for her behind-the-scenes role in a lawsuit against Mark Cockerham.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler says Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration may have improperly destroyed records in the state employee health insurance program, in the middle of a heavily-criticized rewrite of benefit plans.
Paper cites the former ADA's "experience as a prosecutor, his demonstrated integrity, and his ideas for reshaping the [DA's] office" in urging voters to support Keith Stutes Nov. 4.
Louisiana officials have sent a letter to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene un-inviting members of the group who have recently been to ebola-affected West African countries from attending the group’s annual conference in New Orleans next week.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have to find a way to win on the road if they plan to take over first place in the NFC South.
"It is obvious that Louisiana economic performance has not outperformed the South or the United States as a whole and, in fact, has substantially underperformed..."
A state district judge said he will rule Friday on a preliminary injunction to keep some charter schools from receiving $60 million through Louisiana's public school financing formula.
Saints fans were to gather, make merry, eat/drink compliments of a new Downtown group and watch the Saints beat Carolina and claim 1st place in the NFC South. But...
Three bedroom traditional or four bedroom traditional in Lafayette
Our fav dress for all seasons
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram doesn't see his dramatic spike in production as any sort of validation.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is facing off one last time with her two main Republican challengers before next week's election.
Shoppers familiar with Louisiana-based Rouses Market might be surprised when they walk into the new third location set to open at the Corner of Johnston Street and Duhon Road south the Acadiana Mall on Wednesday.