School leaders rethink school discipline at White House conference

Mike Lamb, TurnAround for Children ________________________
Mike Lamb, Turnaround for Children

There is a growing national consensus, reflected in the positions and priorities of lawmakers at all levels of government, that the U.S. criminal justice system must be reformed with the goal of ending mass incarceration.  That consensus extends to upstream preventive strategies, especially for improving approaches to school discipline.  The zero-tolerance approach to school discipline leads to approximately three million children being expelled or suspended annually, with a disproportionate number being children of color. This indisputably contributes to increased school dropout rates, juvenile justice system involvement, and ultimately to higher levels of incarceration.
A July 22 meeting at the White House to “Rethink School Discipline” reflects this growing consensus. The Obama Administration convened several hundred school leaders from around the country to hear from federal policymakers and share best practices and current research. There were major addresses by the heads of two federal departments—U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan set the stage, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch made concluding remarks.  But  center stage belonged to local school leaders, philanthropists, and academics.

Mike Lamb, Turnaround for Children’s executive director in Washington, D.C., reported on the breakout session he attended, “Building Trauma-Informed Schools.” One takeaway message, said Lamb, is that there is a roadmap to follow in schools and in classrooms to help manage the impacts on teaching and learning from the stress in children’s lives, especially those affected by the trauma of multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). [Learn more about adverse childhood experiences at ACES 101.]

“This gives us hope for the most challenged children,” he said.

In his report on the small group conversation, Lamb highlighted three messages. He noted that the data might be scary but the situation is not hopeless. The

stories of success must be shared with the broader public. Investments are needed, not just a hope and a prayer. Second, adults (including teachers but also janitors and other on the school staff) matter; they can interrupt the cycle of trauma and de-escalate potentially re-traumatizing situations. Finally, there are resources available to improve school climate, such as those from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the California Endowment, and from communities such as Denver, CO, where individuals from education and social services are working together to create trauma-informed schools and communities. [You can find other examples of trauma-informed schools in the ACEs in Action section on this site.]

Anna Deavere Smith (l) and presidential advisory Valerie Jarrett _________________________
Anna Deavere Smith (l) and presidential advisory Valerie Jarrett

“Fireside Chat” with presidential advisory Valerie Jarrett and actor Anna Deavere Smith was a highlight. Both Smith and Jarrett were brought up in education-focused households—Smith’s mother was a teacher in Baltimore and Jarrett’s an early childhood education expert and advocate.  The conversation included how Smith became involved in the school discipline issue (by being briefed and inspired by officials of The Atlantic Philanthropies and Open Society Foundations) and the history of Barack Obama’s involvement in justice issues. Jarrett said the creation of My Brother’s Keeper is grounded in the President’s belief that all children deserve safe environments where they can reach their full potential.

Smith said the stories of children—many from Baltimore—“blew my mind and opened my heart.” She said what is considered “mischief” in white children is pathologized in black, brown, and American Native children. Also, the scope of the issue and its attraction for people in all kinds of disciplines drew Smith in and excited her. The people included the children themselves, judges, principals, teachers and scientists such as Dr. Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University, whom she described as the grandfather of the term “toxic stress”.

Smith envisions a huge institution (she later referred to this as a metaphorical institution) where all kinds of people with different gifts can come together to address these issues. Both Jarrett and Smith emphasized the importance of people getting involved in some way to help those in their communities, not relying solely on government.

“We forget how little it takes to change a life—a supportive teacher, a counselor who unleashes the untapped potential of a child,” said Jarrett.

They both urged the audience to take back to their communities what they learned at the meeting and help build the momentum behind the movement to improve the lives of all children. Smith includes this call for personal involvement in her play “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” as described in a recent story on ACEsTooHigh.

Cabinet Secretary and chair of My Brother’s Keeper, Broderick Johnson, and University of California, San Francisco, professor Howard Pinderhughes led the session “Addressing Trauma & Community Violence.” Pinderhughes emphasized the importance and depth of trauma, especially in inner-city neighborhoods where there is high level of community and household violence. He asked audience members if  they were familiar with the ACE Study and the response prompted him to say “Google it. We should all know about it.” Later he told the audience to “Google” the San Francisco Public Schools program, HEARTS, to learn how it trains teachers and other team members to address trauma. [Here is a story about how the HEARTS program was implemented in El Dorado Elementary School in San Francisco.] He felt that education is often the most difficult partner to get to the table for fear of being labeled a troubled school. He said that it is more important now than ever for schools not to be islands but rather be part of resilience building communities.

The panel “Highlighting District Progress” focused on the specific strategies that school districts are using to improve school climate and reduce suspensions and expulsions.  They discussed creating a meaningful space for parents to be involved before a crisis occurs, bringing the larger community into a collaboration to address student’s issues, hiring an assistant principal to oversee interventions and supports, and providing a role for the student voice. One specific form of restorative practice was highlighted:  a school in New York trains its teachers to facilitate a first period check-in so that students can “unpack” what has happened since the day before. This process allows teachers to know  when it is best to ease off some students while pushing others a little harder.  Restorative practice is addressed in a First Focus blog along with coverage of other sessions not covered here.

comprehensive listing of resources on these topics is included in a release by Department of Education. Among the resources is “Addressing the Root Causes of Disciplinary Disparities: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide. The new guide, released at the White House conference, was created to assist schools and districts in identifying the root causes of disparities in the outcomes of school discipline through data analysis and developing an action plan to address the root causes. The guide includes a number of tools for data gathering, planning, and communicating with stakeholders. The department also launched a Rethink Discipline initiative that includes an interactive map with local suspension rates and a section titled “Suspension 101,” with bullets on the impact of suspension and effective alternatives.


  1. Things are worse than ever in Minnesota public schools:

    “Becky McQueen, who comes across as a five-foot-three mother hen, heads Harding’s college prep program for middle and low-income kids. She says the percentage of kids causing problems at Harding is very small, and they’re not all special ed. Last spring, when she stepped into a fight between two basketball players, one grabbed her shoulder and head, throwing her aside.

    “The kid was only sent home for a couple of days.

    “In March, when a student barged into her class, McQueen happened to be standing in the doorway and got crushed into a shelf. The following week, two boys came storming in, hit a girl in the head, then skipped back out. One of them had already been written up more than 30 times.

    “Yet another student who repeatedly drops into her class has hit kids and cursed at an aide, once telling McQueen he would “fry” her ass. She tried to make a joke of it — “Ooh, I could use a little weight loss.”

    “Her students interjected: “No, that means he’s gonna kill you.”

    “Now, to know who to let in, she tells her students to use a secret knock at the door.

    “There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are,” McQueen says. “I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.”….

    “At John A. Johnson Elementary on the East Side, several teachers, who asked to remain anonymous, describe anything but a learning environment. Students run up and down the hallways, slamming lockers and tearing posters off the walls. They hit and swear at each other, upend garbage cans under teachers’ noses.

    “We have students who will spend an hour in the hallway just running and hiding from people, like it’s a game for them,” says one despondent teacher. “A lot of them know no one is going to stop them, so they just continue.”

    “Nine teachers at Ramsey Middle School have quit since the beginning of this school year. Some left for other districts. Others couldn’t withstand the escalating anarchy.

    “In mid-April, staff at Battle Creek Elementary penned a letter to their principal over “concerns about building wide safety, both physical and emotional, as well as the deteriorating learning environment.”

    “A week later, the principal announced that he would be transferred next year.

    “It’s still just as crazy, with kids slamming doors and yelling and not listening to any teachers, running up and down the halls,” says one Battle Creek Elementary teacher. “We had two behavior aides who come to the room if there’s an issue or if a kid’s left the class. They try to calm the kids down, and then they just put them right back in class after 5-10 minutes. It’s not working. You know how kids are. If one gets away with it, then they’re all gonna do it.”

    Continue reading…


  2. This is an extraordinary hopeful message. Thanks for bringing it to a wider audience.

    (Can you fix the “ACES 101” link? I’d like to be able to spread the message that link most likely provides).


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