By The Bakersfield Californian
If Kern County schools need help figuring out how to address their sky-high rate of student expulsions and suspensions, they might consult Paul Jacobsen.
The elementary school principal transformed discipline on his San Francisco campus a few years ago when he replaced suspensions with dialogue. Under the school's new discipline model, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Jacobsen brought student offenders and student victims together to discuss their issue, explain their feelings at the time of the incident in question and determine ways to make the situation right. Sound a bit warm and fuzzy? OK, it does -- but the results have far exceeded those achieved through the more traditional punishments Jacobsen doled out over two decades as principal. Suspensions dropped from 20 last year to three this year.
"We just recognize we aren't going to be able to punish away the problems," Jacobsen told the Chronicle. Key to the new approach is giving students the chance to right their wrong. For example, a boy caught with a bag of marijuana could stay at his school but had to take counseling, write a letter of apology, do community service and work with a tutor to get caught up on school work.
"For a lot of students, they never get that choice," one school official said. "They just kind of harden up. Their hatred for the institution grows."
The program was implemented with the help of a grant. Nearly 700 teachers and staff were trained in the process.
This approach sounds like a promising technique to minimize expulsions in other locales. And Kern County, which has an expulsion rate four times the statewide average, according to a recent study, should be a leading contender for such grants.
By contrast, two new bills in the Legislature to address expulsions take the wrong approach. In AB 2242, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, wants to remove "willful defiance" as a reason students can be expelled. Only punishment as severe as in-school suspension would be allowed for the offense. While we agree that "defiance" is a vague offense open to too much interpretation, the changes in this bill only serve to limit school officials and will hardly lead to transformations like the one at Jacobsen's school.
Meanwhile, under SB 1235, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg wants to require schools that suspend 25 percent or more of their students during one academic year to implement strategies shown in research to change bad behavior. This bill has considerably more merit, but better still would be this approach: Simply encourage schools to openly embrace new disciplinary approaches, and give them the resources to do so. Don't punish them into imposing new strategies.
High expulsion numbers should be shameful enough to motivate schools to change their approach to discipline. What schools need most are leaders who embrace new disciplinary approaches and, of course, the money to fund new, proven programs.
Sacramento has already prescribed enough discipline in the Education Code, and some experts blame that top-down approach for the increase in school expulsions and suspensions in recent decades. Even more laws on the subject is overkill and unnecessary. The better solution is to simply identify approaches that work and duplicate them.