In one of Kansas' poorest school districts, there's a roadmap for better school discipline

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
At Schlagle High School in Kansas City USD 500, school staff members were able to slash office disciplinary referrals and suspensions each by about half by shifting the school's disciplinary mindset to focus on restorative justice.

About five years ago, administrators in Kansas City Unified School District 500 realized they had a huge problem, particularly at a few of the district's high schools.

In one of the state's largest, but poorest, districts, not only were students missing school or class time excessively, but often, it was a problem of the schools' making, since teachers and administrators kept referring students to the principals' offices, where some students were further sent home with suspensions.

At one building, Schlagle High School, students were sent to the office 2,400 times, or 2.3 referrals per student — a rate more than three times higher than the Kansas average. More than 650 students received suspensions, and  between the suspensions and office referrals, students were cumulatively losing more than 109,000 minutes of instructional time, or 228 days of school.

Something had to change.

Making any sort of meaningful change meant changing the district's approach to discipline, which has traditionally focused on punitive measures that too often remove students from classrooms and cause them to fall even deeper into academic and behavioral holes.

But with a new approach called restorative justice, the schools soon found that not only were students following rules more closely, but academics also improved as students spent more time learning and less time sent away from the classrooms.

Administrators and student support specialists from Kansas City USD 500 on Tuesday spoke with the Kansas Department of Education about the restorative justice approach to school discipline.

Octavio Estrella, assistant director of student services, told the state school board that the district's new disciplinary approach focuses on repairing harm, building healthy relationships and allowing students to have a voice in advancing equity in their schools.

In Schlagle High School's case, school interventionist Terry Bigby said the school's administrators found that traditional disciplinary measures — like exclusion from school, holding students back a grade, "scared straight" programs and other punitive measures — were failing to address the underlying issues causing students to act up in school.

"What we were doing was actually driving more kids into criminal justice and more kids out of school," said Bigby.

Instead, over the past several years, administrators at Schlagle and other schools in USD 500 researched and implemented restorative justice practices, which focused on building cultural and socially responsive school environments, teaching community expectations alongside traditional subjects like math and holding students to those standards.

The shift in disciplinary approach did take work, rather than just a change in mindset, however. The district's schools had to find funding to have dedicated professionals to lead restorative justice training for teachers and staff, as well as allowing those staffers professional development time to learn a completely new approach to handling misbehaving students.

But the work paid off.

At Schlagle High School, office referrals decreased by 52%, suspensions by 42%, major safety offenses by 81% and chronic absenteeism (or the percentage of students who missed more than seven days in a semester) by 39%, Bigby said.

Estrella said the disciplinary approach has worked phenomenally for an urban district like Kansas City USD 500, but it can also work well for any other Kansas district, big or small.

Board member Ann Mah, D-Topeka, commended the district for getting school community buy-in on the change in disciplinary approach. The state education department previously offered statewide training on restorative justice practices but stopped after grant funding for the training expired.

Kent Reed, a school counseling program consultant for KSDE, said he imagined there'd be significant interest in another restorative justice training program if the board were to fund it again.

KSDE announces Kansans Can recognitions

In other business, the Kansas Department of Education announced several districts that placed in the education agency's first Kansans Can School Recognition Program.

Originally planned for spring 2020 announcements but delayed by the pandemic, the recognitions were designed to acknowledge Kansas school districts' success in meeting several areas of achievement, including graduation rates, kindergarten-readiness and social-emotional growth, among other criteria set by the state school board to measure excellence.

Schools were awarded the recognitions at several "medal" levels, with more than 100 districts placing in at least one of the lofty categories.

Commissioner Randy Watson told the board that the state education department intentionally set its standards high, with the goal to push schools to continually improve and reach excellence. While not all districts participated this past year, especially with other pressing matters during the pandemic, Watson said he expects more Kansas districts will participate after the program's inaugural year.

A separate distinction, the Commissioner's Award, also recognized school districts that had more students achieve post-high school success compared to expected levels, based on risk factors such as number of students in poverty or the rate of transient students.

Fifty-four districts received that base award for outperforming expectations by standard deviations, while 39 districts received the same award but with honors for beating expectations by more than one standard deviation.

Only four districts — Dighton USD 482, Fairfield USD 310, Frontenac USD 249 and the Diocese of Wichita — received the Commissioner's Award with Highest Distinction for beating expected performance by more than two standard deviations.

The board also recognized four students who were selected as either delegates or alternates in representing Kansas as part of the 2021 U.S. Senate Youth Program.

Yates Center High School's Sean-Patrick Hurst and Burlington High School's Seth Jarvis were the two delegates for the selective program, in which delegates meet with federal legislators and learn about the national government over the course of a week. Each student also receives a $10,000 scholarship from The Hearst Foundations, which sponsors the program.

Shawnee Mission East High School's Charlie Birt and Derby High School's Sean Wentling were Kansas's two alternates.