High School Reform

How schools can lower suspension rates and raise graduation rates

Why aren’t traditional school discipline policies working?

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.

A growing body of research shows that nearly half of all children in the United States have experienced a traumatic event tied to poverty or family dysfunction, and repeated exposure to high stress can literally rewire the brain. This calls into question the so-called “zero-tolerance” school discipline systems that many states have adopted in the past decade in response to pressure to improve graduation rates and test scores. “If you run a school that’s based on punishment and compliance, eventually you’re going to push kids out,” Puglisi said. “Your test scores might even go up, if you push the right kids out.”

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Around the country, schools are finding that policies intended to make schools safer and less chaotic often backfire. A spike in expulsions and suspensions has disproportionately affected black and Latino students, especially in poor communities. Wisconsin, for example, suspended 34 percent of its black students during the 2011-2012 school year, according to a national study; Florida suspended 37 percent of those with learning disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines last year in an effort to bring down the high rates of students losing time in school, which has been linked to higher drop-out rates. A study released in January showed that high suspension rates hurt academic achievement for everyone, even classmates who have not been suspended. Researchers believe a punitive environment causes anxiety and poor relationships.

All ninth-graders at Metropolitan Business Academy take a class that addresses students’ personal traumas and tactics for change.

All ninth-graders at Metropolitan Business Academy take a class that addresses students’ personal traumas and tactics for change.

“Pretty much every state in the country is re-examining the zero-tolerance and harsh disciplinary policies,” said Nina Salomon, senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “Schools that want to reduce their expulsions are looking at these trauma-informed methods. … They seem to be more effective in changing students’ behavior.”

But some researchers and advocates caution that the pendulum could swing too far. “We so often swing from one extreme to another in education policy, and I worry that’s what’s happening here,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “Zero tolerance was mindless, but it’s also mindless to take away discipline tools from teachers. Tools like suspensions and expulsions are part of that.”

Metropolitan is a public magnet school that draws about two-thirds of its 390 students from New Haven and the rest from surrounding towns. The student body is about 40 percent black, 35 percent Latino and 23 percent white, and 57 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. The school began its new approach to discipline when Puglisi arrived as principal in 2010.

She came in with a background as a longtime special education teacher who had run a program to prepare ninth- and 10th-graders to enter a large, comprehensive high school in New Haven. “There were a lot of at-risk children. We didn’t have any support staff, and there were a lot of discipline issues,” recalled Puglisi, a 57-year-old Queens, New York, native and grandmother of two whose kinetic energy provides a presence larger than her trim 5-foot-2 stature. “Every time I interviewed a child, nine times out of 10 they would end up in tears, divulging very personal information that made me think they needed a lot of help.”

And then help came knocking. The Post Traumatic Stress Center was within walking distance of the school, known as CT Scholars, and at Christmas in 2005 its director came by to offer a wreath — and an after-school program for the most troubled students. Puglisi accepted and then saw behavior problems and suspensions among those students drop.

The center found funding to provide a trauma-sensitive approach for all students at that school, train staff and develop a mandatory academic course for freshmen to address personal hardships. Puglisi later brought all those things with her to Metropolitan.

The year she arrived, the school had just moved into a gorgeous new building and enrollment jumped to 295 from 167. In a school survey, close to half the students said teachers didn’t have control of their classrooms, and nearly three-quarters of teachers said they didn’t get the help they needed to handle student discipline problems. Tenth-grade test scores had dropped, putting the school near the bottom of the pack in New Haven: Only 10 percent of students met reading goals; only 7 percent met math goals.

Judith Puglisi, principal of Metropolitan Business Academy, brought a nontraditional approach to school discipline five years ago and has seen the graduation rate rise to 90 percent.

Judith Puglisi, principal of Metropolitan Business Academy, brought a nontraditional approach to school discipline five years ago and has seen the graduation rate rise to 90 percent.

Metropolitan’s team now includes a school social worker, six social work interns and three part-time drama therapists from the ALIVE program. The social worker’s salary is included in the school budget, and the therapists’ work is funded this year with $30,000 from the New Haven Trauma Coalition, a public-private partnership launched in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 25 miles from New Haven in the far wealthier community of Newtown.

With that small investment, the impact has been profound. Over the past three years, the number of suspensions at Metropolitan has dropped by two-thirds. It now has a suspension rate of 3 percent. Incidents of physical fights in school have also plummeted, from 40 in 2010 to less than five last year. The graduation rate rose to 90 percent in 2014 from 82 percent in 2012, and college enrollment rose to 70 percent in 2012 from 48 percent in 2010.

Citywide, New Haven recently embraced an increasingly popular approach to discipline known as restorative justice. Like trauma-sensitive discipline, restorative justice emphasizes students’ social and emotional development, but it focuses on cooperatively repairing damage rather than the underlying reasons for behavior problems. Garth Harries, superintendent of the 21,500-student school district, said the city is exploring how to fund more programs like Metropolitan’s.

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Metropolitan’s required course for ninth-graders addresses some of the students’ most potent problems, from homelessness to gun violence to drug addiction. By bringing experiences into the open and allowing all the teens to hear what others have been through, the aim is to reduce bullying and enable adults to offer support.

Metropolitan ninth-graders Latrese Martin, Ross Jacobson and Tia Stevens say their trauma-informed class gives them a place to be heard.

Metropolitan ninth-graders Latrese Martin, Ross Jacobson and Tia Stevens say their trauma-informed class gives them a place to be heard.

“It’s a nonjudgment zone,” said Tia Stevens, an outgoing 14-year-old who mixes prodding and compassion to encourage her peers to speak up in class.

“It helps us help other people,” added Henry Seyue, 14, who admitted that he started the year with prejudices about some of his classmates. “You really don’t understand what other people are going through unless you’re in their shoes. Like we did [a role play] where someone was coming out to being gay to their family. … It was mind-blowing stuff.”

One freshman class on a snowy March afternoon began with a happy celebration of a student’s birthday, but then took a darker turn. The group of 20 usually boisterous freshmen sat silently for 15 minutes as the birthday girl, encouraged by her teacher, related why she almost didn’t come to school that morning. “My mom told me she never wanted me,” the girl said, looking at the floor, determined not to cry. “She said what she always says. That I’m kinda worthless. A waste of space.”

Her teacher, Nataliya Braginsky, said the girl struggles with attendance in other classes, but she always shows up to this one. In another class, Braginsky asked students to list community problems. Responses included snitching, abuse, money, violence and drugs.

A boy raised his hand and asked if the teacher knew of a drug called K2. Braginsky said she didn’t and tried to move on with the conversation, but the ninth-grader interrupted several times, joking about how he used and sold it. Braginsky finally brought the discussion to a halt.

All ninth-graders take a trauma-informed class at Metropolitan, where they discuss and decide behavior rules they will try to follow.

All ninth-graders take a trauma-informed class at Metropolitan, where they discuss and decide behavior rules they will try to follow.

“Are you using K2?” she asked, smiling. “Are you using drugs?”

“You gonna call the cops on me?” the student shot back.

“No, I don’t think I’d call the cops on you,” said Braginsky, a slender 29-year-old with cropped hair and a nose ring.

“You don’t care?” asked the student, his voice rising.

Braginsky’s tone turned serious. “No, I care a lot about whether you use drugs. I just don’t think I’d call the cops on you.”

The class quickly moved into a role play between a drug dealer and a teenager who had gotten kicked out of his house — played by the student who had raised the K2 question — and was vulnerable to the dealer’s influence. Classmates tried to intervene and help the homeless student stay away from the dealer. When he rejected every offer, the class reconvened to discuss what to do when you can’t help a friend and what some other options might have been. A drama therapist who was co-teaching the class followed up with the boy after class. The staff determined he wasn’t using drugs but was still coping with the violent death of his older brother a few years ago.

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Addressing trauma requires educators to understand students differently, said Jim Sporleder, the recently retired principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, another school that’s had success with a trauma-sensitive approach. But, he added, it does not necessarily require significant resources.

“We’re trying to get to the root of the problem instead of just repeating the kinds of things that got ’em to that bad place in the first place,” said Sporleder, who changed his school’s discipline code in response to a slew of studies showing the impact of trauma on brain function.

This nontraditional approach to discipline has garnered attention from educators nationwide. The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children has received emails from 250 schools around the country requesting help in the past year. Susan F. Cole, the initiative’s director, said schools won’t get the results they want if they just reduce suspensions and expulsions. They must learn how to create a place where students feel safe enough to learn.

The Metropolitan student who exploded at his English teacher is on track to graduate next year. He still sometimes struggles to stay motivated and complete his work. But he continues to see the school-based therapist as needed, and he hasn’t had any more outbursts or fights. He and his English teacher became close after the incident. Today, when things get tough in his life, the teenager turns to the adult who welcomed him back into class.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive