How Schools Can Lower Suspension Rates and Raise Graduation Rates

Why aren’t traditional school discipline policies working?

(Image: File)

This piece was written by Meredith Kolodner, a staff writer at The Hechinger Report. For more about Kolodner, see below.

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Having racked up multiple absences and missed assignments, a high school sophomore showed up in his English class last year, hopeful for another chance. “Where have you been?” his teacher asked. “You can’t pass this class if you don’t show up.” Without warning, the young man exploded.

“Shut the f— up,” the 16-year-old shouted. “You think you’re better than me? Who the f— do you think you are?” He stormed out of the room.

As the screaming and the swearing escalated in the hall, the Metropolitan Business Academy principal, Judith Puglisi, was called. She approached the student. “What do you need?” she asked in an almost-whisper. He kept yelling and pacing, and Puglisi walked with him, she recalled.

After she quietly repeated her question close to a dozen times, he turned to her and said, “I need to come to your office.” There, Puglisi and the assistant principal listened to him shout until he began to cry, telling them that his stepfather had beaten him since he was 7. “I am sick of people calling me a loser,” he said.

The student was not suspended, which would be normal protocol at some schools for cursing at a teacher. Instead, he saw a drama therapist trained in trauma at Metropolitan the next day. The day after that, he met with the teacher, apologized, and said he knew he had overreacted. He returned to the class immediately after that meeting.

“Some would say that punishment will extinguish bad behavior, but I would say the opposite,” said Puglisi, who recounted the incident under the condition that the student’s name be withheld for his protection.

Metropolitan is among a small but growing number of schools nationally that are turning the traditional approach to discipline on its head. Instead of trying to get students to leave their personal troubles at the door, these schools help kids cope with what often is a history of trauma. The idea is to catch problems before they become disciplinary issues resulting in suspensions or expulsions, and thus remove key barriers to academic success.

Metropolitan and a dozen other schools in Connecticut work with Animated Learning by Integrating and Validating Experience (ALIVE), a trauma response program that provides drama therapists to work with teachers to identify trauma, prevent problems from escalating and respond effectively when students do act out. The therapists — who hold master’s degrees with training in psychology and theater — offer one-on-one therapy and use drama and role playing in a mandatory class for freshmen.

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