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How One D.C. School Is Challenging Conventional Wisdom Around School Discipline

 
 
 
 

Sojourners

By Hannah Wiley

June 6, 2018
 
The Pride Room at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., looks and sounds more like a luxury spa than a classroom.
 
The sound of beach waves crashing on the sand plays from a white noise system, while lavender oil diffuses from an aromatherapy machine that gives off a rotation of calming colors. Yoga mats and reflection sheets are purposefully laid out for individualized meditation practices.
This is not a pampered perk for the best academic performers at Eagle Academy; instead, it’s punishment for the troublemakers.
 
“To assume that every student is going to be reached in the exact same way is ludicrous,” Robert Hagans, one of Eagle’s behavior specialists and the self-proclaimed “in-school dad,” said. “We have different systems coming in to the building to work with the concerns that we have.”
Royston Lyttle, the principal of this campus, said resources like the Pride Room — and other Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) strategies recently implemented by the school — are why school discipline numbers have dropped dramatically. In the 2014-2015 school year, administrators at Eagle gave 1,393 referrals for discipline. By the end of 2017, that number was sliced by more than half, to 628.
 
“We strongly believe in no in-school suspensions, and limit[ing] out-of-school suspensions as much as possible,” Lyttle said. “We believe that just because you put a child outside of school for suspension, it will not fix the problem. The behavior will still be there.”
According to Lyttle, Eagle trains teachers how to discern the root causes of concerning behavior, not just the symptoms. Are those causes age-expected, or possibly related to a disability or, perhaps, a result of trauma? Using this questioning, teachers apply interventions and discipline according to a tiered system of behavior: anywhere from a verbal redirection, to a note home, to an office referral.
 
Once a month, Lyttle convenes a team of 10 behavior specialists, counselors, psychologists and a Department of Mental Health representative to review discipline data. Based on their analysis, they implement interventions according to what a certain classroom, teacher, or student needs.
“Being able to recognize that these students are individuals with their own histories, with their own issues and problems, is the first step in meeting them where they need to be in order to grow them where they need to grow to,” Hagans said.
 
Last year, Eagle issued zero in-school suspensions and recorded only one bullying incident — astoundingly low statistics for a school its size. The total number of violent incidents fell 30 percent from 2014-2015 to 2017. And while there were 18 out-of-school suspensions documented at the end of last year, that number has been nearly halved from just two years ago.
 
In a school of 780 students in a neighborhood prone to violence, sometimes building a safe space for teacher-student connection takes a backseat to classroom management. The easiest way to manage behavior is falling back on heavy punishment practices, which Lyttle said rarely addresses the core of the problem.
Almost 30 students have been directly affected by homicide at Eagle, and, “Once that happens, the students struggle,” Lyttle said.
 
These students are told they can take a break in the Pride Room with behavior specialists if they have a bad day. Even before it reaches that point, teachers implement specific classroom strategies that are based on empathy and “a reiteration of positive language and redirection” to deescalate the situation, according to Director of
Student Climate Krystie Wilson.
 
“[We are] making ourselves more aware as a teacher and staff member on how we’re relating to and interacting with students,” Wilson said.
On May 31, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited teachers and educators at schools in Hanover, Md., who, like Lyttle’s team at Eagle, are implementing PBIS strategies in their classrooms.
 
The visit came at a time when DeVos and her school safety commission are hosting private discussions, school visits, and panels to consider rolling back Obama-era regulations that were implemented to curb discipline practices that disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities. Under the Trump administration, the department says it is concerned the policy prevents school officials from properly addressing dangerous behavior.
 
“We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education,” DeVos said in a 60 Minutes interview in March.
“We are studying that [Obama-era policy]. We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students means all students.”