Fayette County seeking new alternatives to school discipline

The Fayette Equity Council has given the Fayette County School Board recommendations for reducing the number of children who are suspended or sent to alternative programs. Currently the Martin Luther King Academy serves the majority of students in the county who need alternative placements.
The Fayette Equity Council has given the Fayette County School Board recommendations for reducing the number of children who are suspended or sent to alternative programs. Currently the Martin Luther King Academy serves the majority of students in the county who need alternative placements. Herald-Leader

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.