EBR schools considering options to reduce expulsions, suspensions

East Baton Rouge Parish is one of 10 school districts in the nation that has agreed to look for additional ways to avoid suspending or expelling students.

The parish school system, the second largest in Louisiana, has long had many schools that expel and suspend children at rates higher than national and state averages, especially among special-education students, inviting years of scrutiny and monitoring.

The school system is joining forces with the Children’s Defense Fund and the American Association of School Administrators.

The Atlantic Philanthropies, founded in 1982 by businessman Chuck Feeney, is underwriting the initiative.

These organizations announced the effort last week. Other participating districts include public schools in Houston and Oakland.

The move follows close on the heels of new guidance issued Jan. 8 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice laying out ways school leaders can develop and implement discipline policies that don’t discriminate against racial or ethnic groups.

AASA spokesman James Minichello said each of the 10 participating districts has agreed to make at least one change to its discipline policies or practices to reduce the reliance on suspensions and expulsions or otherwise strengthen school climate and learning.

“The change each district makes will depend very much on local circumstance,” Minichello said. “Some districts are looking to overhaul their codes of conduct, others want to offer teachers alternatives to suspension.”

Minichello said East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Bernard Taylor agreed to take part in the effort during a meeting of superintendents from around the country that AASA held at Haley Farm, near Knoxville, Tenn., a farm once owned by “Roots” author Alex Haley and now owned by the Children’s Defense Fund.

“East Baton Rouge was then selected for participation in this partnership given demonstrated need in the district, change-minded leadership and our interest in selecting a diversity of districts,” Minichello said.

Taylor said the meeting in Tennessee, which he said was paid for by the organizers, was good but that he is still weighing what to do in response.

“What they are trying to do is worthwhile,” he said. “Some of what they’re suggesting is good, but some of it doesn’t really apply here.”

For instance, Louisiana no longer allows out-of-school expulsions. In Baton Rouge, expelled students go to the Valley Park alternative school.

Also, the school system no longer suspends kids out of school, and instead relies on in-school suspensions as well as alternative schools that struggling students choose to attend.

Taylor said he is looking at ways to make sure that students with like infractions receive similar discipline school to school.

One idea is to experiment with student courts, something he said District Attorney Hillar Moore III has talked to him about. Taylor said he also is considering more training for new teachers in building relationships with students as a way to avert discipline issues.

Former Superintendent John Dilworth began the push to reduce suspension rates in East Baton Rouge Parish, particularly for students with disabilities.

He did so in an effort to free the school system from years of federal “corrective action” for suspending special education students at rates much higher than the state and national average.

That corrective action led to the forced hiring of an outside monitor for student discipline. The school system finally exited corrective action last summer.

Suspension rates have steadily declined at many schools in the past couple of years. However, that has led some educators and parents to complain that student behavior is getting worse.

In May, Taylor signaled to principals that he wanted to end the use of deans of students strictly for discipline, saying school administrators should be focused on instruction.

He also said he wanted to eliminate the use of certified teachers as time-out room moderators.

In August, though, after weeks of debate, the board restored those positions to the budget and also decided not to fund an expansion of a youth advocate program that Taylor launched to head off student discipline problems.

Taylor also has revamped alternative schools, redubbing them “superintendent’s academies,” and employing greater use of instructional technology.