Two ap­proaches to deal­ing with school trou­ble­mak­ers

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Milwaukee Wisconsin - ALAN J. BORSUK Alan J. Borsuk is a se­nior fel­low in law and pub­lic pol­icy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@

Let me first take care of two mat­ters in the af­ter­math of the com­men­tary I wrote a week ago.

Right around 11%. That was the of­fi­cial an­nual sus­pen­sion rate in Milwaukee Pub­lic Schools in each of the four most re­cent school years. I said last week that I asked for cur­rent data on MPS sus­pen­sions on Dec. 12 and hadn’t got­ten a re­sponse. It came in a let­ter dated Jan. 8.

The fig­ures, start­ing in 2013-’14 were 11.3%, 10.4%, 11.8% and 11.4%. Through De­cem­ber of this school year, MPS sus­pen­sions are run­ning slightly ahead of the same pe­riod a year ago.

So about one in nine MPS stu­dents is sus­pended at last once a year. That is less than half of the sus­pen­sion rate of a decade ago when a team of school of­fi­cials from around the coun­try said that MPS had the high­est sus­pen­sion rate they knew of in the coun­try. Their re­port called for de­vel­op­ing al­ter­na­tives.

The pre­vail­ing word from on high in MPS since then has been to re­duce sus­pen­sions.

Have more con­struc­tive al­ter­na­tives arisen?

Maybe, some­what, in some schools. But over­all?

I doubt it. If you know a teacher who will can­didly tell you the be­hav­ior cli­mate in that teacher’s school is bet­ter now than a few years ago, let me know. I don’t know any.

This is hardly a mat­ter lim­ited to MPS and Milwaukee. My sec­ond point, fol­low­ing on last week’s col­umn on the be­hav­ior in school, is to say that I heard from dozens of teach­ers and for­mer teach­ers from through­out Wis­con­sin. The re­sponses were in­sight­ful, heart­felt, of­ten sad — and of­ten lengthy. Teach­ers want to be heard. I’m still go­ing over the re­sponses and will write about them soon. Stay tuned.

For the mo­ment, I sug­gest con­sid­er­ing two snap­shots of ways to re­spond to the need for bet­ter and safer schools. It’s easy to la­bel one a soft ap­proach and one a hard ap­proach, but I sug­gest there may be more to the re­al­ity of both than that. Ev­ery­one wants teach­ers and stu­dents to be safe in school; ev­ery­one wants ed­u­ca­tion to be a process not only of teach­ing aca­demic skills but of mov­ing chil­dren to­ward be­ing good cit­i­zens with good traits. There are different routes to these goals.

The first snap­shot is from Madi­son on Thurs­day. The state Assem­bly ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee held a lengthy pub­lic hear­ing on a pro­posal the au­thor, Rep. Jeremy Thies­feldt (R-Fond du Lac), calls the Teacher Pro­tec­tion Act.

In short, it would in­crease the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween teach­ers and po­lice de­part­ments and give teach­ers a stronger hand in see­ing that kids who cause trou­ble could be re­moved from their class­rooms.

Thies­feldt told me that there are dis­ci­plinary prac­tices in some schools now that are re­ally more “so­cial jus­tice ex­per­i­ments.” They are not work­ing, he said.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence in teach­ing is that when you kind of ig­nore or turn your back on dis­ci­plin­ing stu­dents, it doesn’t get bet­ter, in fact, it prob­a­bly is go­ing to get worse,” he said. “Just talk­ing to stu­dents isn’t suf­fi­cient. There has to be more ac­tion, even up to ex­pul­sions.”

Crit­ics said Thies­feldt’s pro­posal em­pha­sized pun­ish­ment over im­prove­ment and par­tic­u­larly would harm stu­dents with spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion needs, mi­nor­ity stu­dents and stu­dents with mental and emo­tional is­sues.

Joanne Juhnke, pol­icy direc­tor of Wis­con­sin Fam­ily Ties, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, said at a news con­fer­ence be­fore the hear­ing, “If Wis­con­sin could ar­rest and sus­pend its way to school safety, we’d have been there a long time ago.”

The com­mit­tee took no ac­tion on the pro­posal.

The sec­ond snap­shot is from a panel dis­cus­sion that was part of a pro­gram at Marquette Law School on Nov. 29 that fo­cused on the in­creas­ing in­ter­est na­tion­wide in “so­cial-emo­tional learn­ing” as part of a school’s pro­gram. (I was the main or­ga­nizer of the event, which in­cluded a prom­i­nent skep­tic of such ef­forts.) The four pan­elists are each in­volved in im­ple­ment­ing such ef­forts. They were from the Wis­con­sin De­part­ment of Pub­lic In­struc­tion, Milwaukee Pub­lic Schools, the Milwaukee Col­lege Prep char­ter schools and the fac­ulty of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Milwaukee.

All four agreed that stu­dents are com­ing to school in large num­bers with­out good skills in such things as selfcon­trol, re­spond­ing to frus­tra­tion and deal­ing with dis­agree­ments with oth­ers. In­te­grated well into a school’s life, so­cial-emo­tional learn­ing can im­prove the cli­mate and build the traits that, in the long run, em­ploy­ers value.

Beth Her­man of the DPI said, “We are hav­ing a mental health cri­sis with our kids, So­cial-emo­tional learn­ing skills are a uni­ver­sal strat­egy for good mental health for all kids.”

Karen Stoiber, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­ogy at UWM, said that a pro­duc­tive re­sponse to the cri­sis of low lev­els of suc­cess in read­ing and math in some schools is to build up the so­cial skills that in­crease a child’s ca­pac­ity to suc­ceed aca­dem­i­cally.

Marquette ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor Cyn­thia Ell­wood, who mod­er­ated the dis­cus­sion, asked why there seems to be an in­crease in these is­sues among stu­dents now.

The con­sen­sus among the pan­elists: So many kids don’t feel much con­nec­tion to other peo­ple. That in­cludes the high num­ber in sur­veys who say they don’t have an adult they can turn to with se­ri­ous per­sonal mat­ters. It also re­flects the im­pact of the heavy use of so­cial me­dia de­vices, at the ex­pense of faceto-face in­ter­ac­tions.

Is there room and need for both build­ing so­cial skills and tak­ing a firm hand on dis­ci­pline? There may well be. From ad­vo­cates of both — and from within schools them­selves — I sense a grow­ing call for im­prov­ing the at­mos­phere in schools. More on that next week.


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