Another school year begins Monday for tens of thousands of Miami-Dade public school students, which means new friends, new teachers and — for the first time — an entirely new approach to discipline.
Instead of booting kids from school for serious disruptions, a move which often leads to troubled students finding more trouble, Miami-Dade is aiming to become one of the largest districts in the country to end out-of-school suspensions.
With growing evidence that tough discipline policies don’t work, the district is instead turning to more counselors, character development and an overhaul of the student code of conduct to address misbehavior — approaches that will include keeping kids in class or in-school programs.
“We often deal with the behavior at the expense of the kid, and this is a way of flipping the approach,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Miami Herald’s editorial board.
The shift will take extensive re-training and a massive culture change in a school district that suspended 36,000 students in 2013-2014, almost enough to fill every seat in the Marlins Park baseball stadium. A disproportionate number of those students were black.
One notorious example of what can happen: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was serving out a suspension from school in 2012 when he was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford — a case that sparked a national debate about self-defense and racial profiling.
“There has been a racial injustice problem in Miami-Dade for several years,” said Thomas Mariadason, a lawyer with the civil rights group Advancement Project, which has been pushing Miami-Dade for new discipline policies. “These are very bold moves, no doubt about it. They are also, for the community, desperately needed moves.”
The stakes — and potential benefits — are high. Researchers know that even one suspension can put a student off-course in school. But in districts that have piloted discipline alternatives, including Broward County, graduation rates often rise and arrest rates tumble.
“This is not about student discipline,” said Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie. “This is about student achievement.”
A widely cited study of Florida ninth-graders found a correlation between just one suspension and a precipitous drop in graduation and college enrollment rates: High school dropout rates double and college enrollment falls by half, according to the 2012 study by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, done for UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.
“You can sort of imagine why,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. “Getting removed from school does a number of things: It further alienates kids. … You’re rewarding the exact behavior you want to stop. It also makes it more likely kids will be involved in drugs or gangs, or get picked up by police.”
He added: “There is no study that has ever been done that shows students come back more engaged, ready to learn.”
Florida suspends among the highest number of public school students in the country — 14 percent in the 2013-2014 school year. Miami-Dade is on the lower end of the scale, with 10 percent of students removed from class. Still, the district, Florida’s largest with nearly 350,000 students, disproportionately suspends black students.
Black students made up 38 percent of students who were suspended but only represent 23 percent of the Miami-Dade schools population.
The same trend is seen nationally, and it starts as early as preschool. Black students are also punished more harshly for the same behaviors, according to federal data and a study by Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt.
Advocates for school discipline reform say the suspension problem is an outgrowth of zero-tolerance policies toward crime that cropped up in the 1980s and eventually infiltrated classrooms. With that mind-set, minor infractions became criminalized. Talking back to a teacher or throwing spitballs in class meant removal from school, and sometimes could actually wind up with students getting arrested.
“The idea that education is only for the few who are the most perfectly obedient, that’s just not how adolescents are,” Losen said.
In 2011, Broward led the state in student arrests. It was the same year Runcie became superintendent. Faced with the discouraging figures, a diverse group of leaders came together — from the local legal system, police departments, civil rights groups and teachers — to rethink Broward’s approach.
The committee came to what they called a collaborative agreement, signed in 2013, that is heavy in early interventions. The district now focuses on providing family counseling or evaluating a child for special needs that may be going unmet, and working with local police to make sure students aren’t arrested for non-violent offenses. There’s even a separate juvenile “system of care,” rather than the traditional courts, to explain to students the consequences of getting wrapped up in the delinquency system.
“Ultimately what we’re trying to get at is the root cause of what is creating the situation for students,” Runcie said. “It comes from the belief that there aren’t necessarily bad kids out there. There are kids in bad situations that end up acting out.”
More than 2,000 students have gone through Broward’s new disciplinary programs, and more than 90 percent haven’t committed a second offense, according to the district. The district’s about-face was recently highlighted by the White House.
“It’s very different from saying, ‘Hey you did something wrong. We’re going to throw you out of here,’” Runcie said. “That puts kids on the path to failure.”
Miami-Dade has begun to take a similar approach with the aim of completely ending what education leaders call “outdoor” suspensions. That’s when a student is ordered to stay away from school for committing an offense, and differs from indoor suspensions, which allow kids to come to school but keep them separated from their normal classes.
Last year, Miami-Dade opened up “Success Centers” for students who were given outdoor suspensions. Parents could drop their children off to serve out their punishment at one of five centers across the district. Outfitted with computers, teachers and counselors, students are not only supervised but also can keep up with their school work.
This year, the number of Success Centers will double and attendance will be mandatory for suspended students.
But Miami-Dade’s main focus, in ways big and small, will shift to what happens before a student gets into trouble.
For example, the school year will start with lessons in character development and every month teachers will be asked to highlight a different trait, such as citizenship or cooperation.
“We need to teach kids expectations,” Carvalho said. “We need to drive a conversation specific to not just academic adequacy, but personal and civic adequacy as well.”
Other interventions will be more targeted and intense.
The district has dug into attendance records and other student data to target groups of kids who need extra support. They’ll be grouped into smaller classes for a “school-within-a-school” approach, with handpicked teachers and additional counselors to keep a close watch on individual student progress. Students will get an extra “service learning” curriculum that focuses on community work and self-reflection.
“We’re looking at those students and drilling down to the school level to see where the biggest alarms are ringing,” Chief Academic Officer Marie Izquierdo told the Miami Herald’s editorial board.
Advocacy groups are keeping a particularly close eye on the district’s plan to try out what are called “restorative justice” programs in two schools this year — Brownsville and Cutler Bay middle.
Restorative justice programs usually focus on small groups that bring together students, including the offender and the victim, to talk out problems.
“It’s about teachers, counselors and how they relate to students, and vice versa. It’s about shifting the culture,” said Ruth Jeannoel, lead organizer at the local Power U.
Power U is an advocacy organization that has been pushing for restorative justice programs in Miami-Dade schools for almost a decade. One of the keys for successful implementation will be training, Jeannoel said. That goes for the whole school: teachers and administrators.
“We can’t end out of school suspensions without giving teachers a tool to deal with conflict in the schools,” she said.
The organization, which works with the national civil rights organization Advancement Project, also wants to make sure kids and parents are included in the changes taking place.
“They’re the ones who have been directly impacted by this and have been asking for this for almost a decade,” Jeannoel said.
Ruth Jeannoel is Lead Organizer, Power U Center for Social Change.