2011-10-13 / Local & State

Teachers Say Discipline Code Gives Kids Upper Hand

By Steve Esack

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) – (hash)%(hash) you!

It’s a retort some students have directed at teachers in the Allentown School District’s two high schools. And they’ve launched the f-word with limited or no repercussions under a new discipline code that seeks to reduce school suspensions so students don’t miss class.

In the first month the updated code has been in place, teachers say students feel they have the upper hand, believing the policy to outright ban suspensions.

“They seem to have a lot of control,” teachers union President Debbie Tretter said of high-schoolers.

Acting Superintendent Russ Mayo said the new code of conduct in no way bars suspensions, but seeks to address the root cause of misbehavior before resorting to keeping a student out of school.

“The intent is not to suspend at the drop of a hat,” Mayo said Friday.

But he admitted there’s been a miscommunication from the top on how to deal with problems such as students’ hurling the f-word at teachers, which under the code is defined as a Level 3 offense that calls for suspension.

Mayo said this week he began meeting with his central staff, principals and the teachers union to clarify the rule. He expects to continue his meetings next week and will discuss it at Thursday's school board meeting.

“One of the biggest issues (for teachers) is ‘I just sent this child out of class; they just said f-you and an hour later or 15 minutes later they are back in my class.” Mayo said Friday. “Well, something is wrong with that. I will say that emphatically.”

The updated discipline code is among the measures endorsed by former Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak, who resigned in August after his dizzying pace of reform left many feeling he was doing too much too soon.

Its tenets grew out of a nationally known program called School-wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, which began in the special education realm more than two decades ago and spread to all sectors of public education. Allentown's elementary schools began using the program in 2008-09, before Zahorchak's arrival.

The positive-behavior method holds that misbehavior should not be overlooked, but neither should good behavior.

The theory is that if educators collectively and enthusiastically set up and enforce a schoolwide system of recognizing and rewarding students for good behavior, they will change into lawabiding pupils with better grades. Students’ good behavior is tracked through a point system, and at the end of a week or month students get some sort of prize if they reach certain goals that show constant or improved behavior.

But almost all studies on whether the positive-behavior method works are done at the elementary level, said Lee Kern, special education professor at Lehigh University. Little research exists on its effect in high schools, especially in urban settings, Lee said.

Russ Skiba, a professor of educational psychology at Indiana University, said positive reinforcement can work in urban schools if it is implemented slowly. But Allentown is implementing the practice incorrectly, Skiba said, if the district quickly changed its suspension and discipline policy without first trying to build a culture of positive reinforcement among staff and students.

“A no-suspension policy is not part and parcel of PBIS,” Skiba said. “The first thing we do in PBIS is we build up our positive climate and . we don’t worry about suspensions that are coming down.”

Mayo said the discipline code being used in the high schools does not include rewards for positive behavior, but utilizes the idea of finding out why students are acting out.

He said the problems that are occurring are not related to the code itself, but that the central administration did not do a good enough job of explaining how it would work to principals, who in turn were unable to properly explain it their staffs.

The new conduct code places student misconduct into four levels of infractions.

Teachers are expected to handle Level 1, which deals with classroom problems such as chewing gum, dress code violations and excessive talking.

Level 1 offenses move to Level 2 if students continue the same bad pattern after interventions such as student conferences, calling parents or asking guidance counselors for assistance.

Assistant principals deal with Level 2 infractions, which include repeat Level 1 violations and more serious offenses, such as bullying, hallway and cafeteria misbehavior and improper language.

The assistant principal is expected to document the Level 2 problems into a computer system that all staff can access. Level 2 consequences include unsatisfactory citizenship grade, privilege withdrawal, writing assignments or after-school detention.

Excessive numbers of Level 2 offenses pile up to Level 3 offenses, which also include arson, extortion, robbery, assault, and dropping the f-word in front of staff in a show of disrespect. Criminal offenses outlined in Level 3 are supposed to be reported to Allentown police or the Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth.

Level 4, which includes weapons or drug possession and assault on staff, can lead to 10-day suspensions or expulsions.

Tretter said problems are arising over interpretation of offenses. She said teachers may think an offense is a Level 2 or 3, but an administrator will disagree and downgrade it to a Level 1.

When that happens, Tretter said, students think the downgrades mean they can get away with more. This in turn has led students to step up their bad behavior, going so far as to put their hands on teachers, which she views as an assault.

Mayo said one staffer was assaulted this school year.

Despite their disagreements, Tretter said she welcomed Mayo's swift intervention in trying to correct problems caused by the new conduct system.

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