Fayette County seeking new alternatives to school discipline

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comJanuary 18, 2014 

  • Water filled low-lying areas and closed portions of some roads Wednesday as much of Central and Eastern Kentucky coped with flooding and standing water from heavy rain hitting already saturated ground.

    Flood warnings were in effect in much of Central and Eastern Kentucky until late Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service.

    The heavy rain, 1 to 3 inches in some areas, swept in ahead of a significant snow storm moving into the central and eastern regions.

    "Multiple" reports of flooding were coming into the Jackson office covering Eastern Kentucky, forecasters said.

    "There are reports of high water and minor flooding all over," said Monica French, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Services.

    French said officials were monitoring water levels in many streams across the area, including Boston in Nelson County and Paris in Bourbon County.

    Low-lying areas in Paris — including two parks — were getting some flooding from Stoner Creek by early Wednesday afternoon, according to Mike Withrow, the city's emergency director.

    Flooding wasn't affecting houses so far, Withrow said, but conditions could get more serious Wednesday night,

    "Flood stage on Stoner Creek is 18 feet, and we're at about 20 feet right now," Withrow said. "The weather service predicts that the creek will crest at about 23.6 feet Wednesday night."

    High water prompted the closing of four roads in Clark County, said emergency management director Gary Epperson.

    A vehicle got stuck on L&E Junction Road but was pulled to safety, Epperson said. Dry Fork Creek, Red River and Stonybrook roads had high water or were closed but Epperson anticipated that "the water should recede as quick as it went up as soon as the rain stops."

    In Garrard County, Ky. 1971-Level Ridge Road over the Sugar Creek Bridge was closed, according to the state Department of Highways District 7 office in Lexington. Motorists were advised to use Ky. 1355-Sugar Creek Road and Ky. 563-Wolfe Trail Road.

    In Berea, municipal utilities officials asked residents to limit unnecessary water usage Wednesday afternoon because of the potential for sewers to overflow or back up because of the rains.

    Sections of Ky. 537 in Montgomery County and Ky. 57 in Bourbon County were closed late Wednesday morning because of rising water, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet said.

    In Lexington, standing water caused headaches for drivers in many areas, but traffic continued to move relatively well, officials said. At one point, traffic was shut down at Bowman's Mill Road and Old Harrodsburg Road because of high water, Lexington police said.

    High water also was reported at Old Todds Road and Caden Lane, but police said traffic there was light. On University Drive, between Cooper Drive and Complex Drive, water ponded, but motorists continued to move through the area.

    David McGill, emergency manager for Harlan County, said there was minor flooding and water over some roads, but none have been reported as impassable. There are no reports of houses threatened.

    "It doesn't appear right now that it should cause any problems." McGill said.

    Harlan County has resolved the water outages from last week, though a few houses were without service because of a new line break that McGill said was likely due to the recent frigid weather. Workers were waiting for water to go down in a ditch so they could get to the break.

    Harlan County school Superintendent Mike Howard said the system dismissed students at 9 a.m. Wednesday because of concerns that floodwaters would rise enough to block roads before the end of the school day.

    "We decided to err on the side of caution and get them back home," Howard said of students. Because of all the snow the county has gotten, Wednesday was the first day back for students since school was held part of the day on Feb. 12, Howard said.

    "We were real excited about getting back in, and here comes Mother Nature again," Howard said.

    David Watson, emergency manager for Clay County, said there some minor flooding with streams out of their banks, but no reports of roads blocked or houses threatened.

    Chris Friley, emergency manager for Breathitt County, said there was some minor flooding locally, but nothing unusual and no problems reported as a result.

    The concern now is the snow moving in late Wednesday. He understands the forecast is for 3 to 5 inches locally, then a low in the single digits overnight Thursday.

    "Here we go again," he said.

  • Suspension report

    A member of the Fayette Equity Council, Brian Hodge, presented to the school board a report from the council's ad-hoc suspension committee. He told board members about a report on school discipline in Fayette County Schools from University of Kentucky researcher Brea L. Perry that showed the following:

    ■ Between 2007 and 2011, the incidents in which students were sent to the principal's office increased by five percent per year on average.

    ■ Black students were about six times more likely to get sent to the office than white students.

    ■ When white and black students who receive free lunch were compared, black students were three times more likely to be sent to the office.

    ■ Latino students and those of other minorities were slightly more likely to be sent to the office.

    ■ Asians were less likely than whites to get sent to the office.

    ■ Compared to white students, blacks were less likely to be sent to the office for drug offenses.

    ■ Blacks were more likely to be sent to the office for fighting, disruptive behavior, sexual offenses and cheating.

    ■ Of all school disciplinary actions, out-of-school suspension had the most devastating and lasting impact on student achievement, with students who were suspended most often not reaching proficient levels on standardized tests.

When Fayette County students go to alternative programs such as Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence because of behavior problems, the perception is that they don't leave.

Hazel Forsythe, a member of the Fayette Equity Council, told members of the Fayette County School Board last week that middle schools are doing a great job of getting students back to their original schools after spending some time at the academy, which is for students in grades 6-12 who have caused disciplinary problems at their assigned schools.

However, students who go to MLK late in high school aren't always given the chance to return to their assigned schools.

"The perception of the community ... was that once a student landed at MLK" or another alternative placement, "they never got back to their home school whether they were successful or not, and this was not a good strategy," Forsythe said.

Officials have pointed to a number of factors: The district does not track students who are sent, and there is not a transition plan in place to return students to their original schools so they can graduate with their peers, she said.

The Fayette Equity Council has been working with the local Children's Law Center since at least 2010 to avoid legal action against the district over what the center sees as disparities in discipline. The council's recommendations are supposed to be discussed at a board meeting Jan. 27.

Fayette County Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton acknowledged that not all Fayette County schools are consistent in providing students help to make successful transitions from MLK back to their original schools. He said any time the district can use the data to be more consistent, "I think it's an improvement."

Shelton said MLK, which opened during the 1999-2000 school year, is serving the majority of students in Fayette County who need alternative placements. But he said for some students the MLK academy, which is on Liberty Road, is "not the right place for them to be referred to begin with."

"Our schools have very limited options" to refer a child who has not succeeded in a regular school setting, he said. "Schools are kind of hamstrung right now in what they can do."

"We have got to have the systems and structures to provide success for students," he said.

Still, Shelton is reviewing the academy's role. He has pledged "a change in culture and philosophy," and he said he is initiating an overhaul in disciplinary procedures in the entire district. Ultimately, he wants to eliminate out-of school suspensions, and is set on developing new alternative programs. The district has begun a new administrative hearing process for students who are recommended for transfer to MLK.

The superintendent said that when the district can give schools more options of how to deal with troubled students, there will be fewer situations that rise to the level of suspending students or sending them to an alternative setting.

Forsythe said there are student assistance teams at each middle and high school that make recommendations to school directors about whether a misbehaving student needs to go to an alternative program or be disciplined in some other way. But she said the required reviews of the decisions either do not take place at all, no data are collected, or the results are inconsistent across schools, particularly with blacks and children of various ethnic backgrounds and children with disabilities.

That type of data needs to be collected, disciplinary options should be reviewed and no school should send its students to MLK without providing input into that student's success and return to the regular school, Forsythe said.

The placement ad-hoc committee asked the board to assign the responsibility of collecting data on whether schools were successful in bringing students back from MLK and other alternative programs to specific staff members at the central offices so the data could be analyzed. The student assistance teams are undergoing training, she said. At a minimum, a teacher, a social worker, a school psychologist, and others need data about a student so the student can have a successful transition back to their school, Forsythe said.

A change is afoot

Data reported in 2011 by the Fayette Equity Council showed that students with disabilities are suspended at more than twice the rate of other students in the district. And while black students made up about 28 percent of Fayette County's enrollment, they accounted for more than 60 percent of suspensions, the council found.

The Children's Law Center, a local advocacy organization, has long been concerned about inequities in school discipline and high suspension rates among disabled and black students. Parents of black children and children with disabilities in Fayette schools have contended for decades that their children are disciplined too much and too often end up in alternative programs.

"We would like action to move even more quickly, but I do believe that change is very much afoot," Children's Law Center litigation director Rebecca DiLoreto said Friday.

DiLoreto pointed to Shelton's initiative to eliminate out-of-school suspensions. DiLoreto said she represented a disabled student in Fayette County last fall who was suspended three times in his first semester of kindergarten for actions that included squeezing a teacher's hand too hard and for hitting another student. She said that once district officials found out about the discipline, they agreed that the student, who was black, should not have been suspended.

As part of the agreement with the Children's Law Center, the district has revised its code of conduct several times and is preparing to do it again. Staff at several schools are being trained in a system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, to help students and faculty members avoid conflict.

Fayette County is trying to get in line with federal recommendations, which urge schools to have consistent expectations and consequences and have policies that limit the use of out-of-school suspensions and alternative placements. Those guidelines were laid out on Jan. 8, when the U.S. Justice and Education departments issued a joint statement in which they told schools how to avoid discriminatory discipline.

School board member Daryl Love said the easy thing for schools to do is to suspend students or send them away to an alternative program. However, if a student is not learning, then Fayette County's achievement gap for blacks "is not going to improve."

In 2012, the Herald-Leader reported that about 69 percent of white males in grades 3 through 9 scored at or above grade level on the "MAP" reading test, compared to 34 percent for black males. In reading, 71 percent of white males were at or above grade level, compared to about 36 percent among their black counterparts.

The achievement gap has "been a concern for decades," P. G. Peeples, a former chairman of the Equity Council, said Friday.

In 1995, Peeples expressed concern that black male students were referred to alternative programs too quickly without addressing root problems in the classroom. He said Friday that it would take vigilance by the board of education and persistence by district officials to eradicate discriminatory discipline.

The makeup at the MLK academy, which had 102 students as of September 2013, was 68 percent black, 21 percent white and 9 percent Hispanic, according to the district's website.

Forsythe served on the Equity Council's ad-hoc Placement Committee which, as part of the agreement with the Children's Law Center, was charged with reviewing the cases of students who entered and left MLK. The committee also looked at the consistency of how their problems were handled by individual Fayette County schools.

Seeing change

School board members are trying to pin down a timeline to implement the ad-hoc committee's recommendations. Forsythe told the board that they should implement the changes within one year.

Shelton said district officials are also looking at data from 2011 to 2014 in an effort to determine why black students are sent to the principal's office more often, which is the first step in the cycle that ends up with a student being suspended or sent to MLK.

Only Winburn and Edythe J. Hayes middle schools reduced suspensions among all students between the 2010-11 school year and the 2011-12 school year, said Hodge. Of Fayette County's five high schools, only Bryan Station saw a reduction in suspensions among all students during that time frame. He said Edythe J. Hayes had a program in which staff are trying to solve problems behind the negative behavior.

Hodge said the Equity Council's ad-hoc suspension committee was going to analyze the suspension rates for every high school and middle school in Fayette every quarter each year and try to find out what kind of incidents are behind the suspensions.

The superintendent said he thinks some students need to be removed from a classroom as a result of their behavior, but they do not need to be taken out of the school setting and need to continue to learn as they are doing in a new in-school suspension program at Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Dunbar's suspension rates have dropped since the program began this year, he said.

"We've got to start seeing that for all schools," said Shelton.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears

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