Wayne judge pushes to ‘kill suspension syndrome’

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

A student skips a day of school. As punishment, the school suspends him for five days. Now he’s missed six days of school, fallen behind in his work, and classmates think of him as a troublemaker.

There has to be a better way, says Wayne Circuit Juvenile Division Judge Frank Szymanski.

Kids not being in school is the greatest threat facing local communities today — worse than crime, homelessness or poverty, because it fosters all three, Szymanski said Tuesday morning at Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights.

Some 44 percent of juvenile crime occurs during the school day. The school-to-prison pipeline, Szymanski said, is paved with suspensions.

On the eve of fall Count Day, during which school attendance translates into 90 percent of state funding, Szymanski was joined by Crestwood’s leadership and a teacher from Detroit’s Cody High School to show there is another, smarter way to handle school discipline than the zero-tolerance policies that popped up after the Columbine school shooting in April 1999.

The zero-tolerance disaster, as Szymanski calls it, has extended beyond bans on guns and other dangerous weapons, which educators say are justified, to minor issues, such as bringing cellphones to school, or judgment calls, such as insubordination or talking back.

The goal of Tuesday’s press conference is to make Wayne County the first to “kill the suspension syndrome” by spreading the word that alternatives work. “Keep kids in school” is the slogan.

Crestwood High School was chosen to host because it has become a “model” in Wayne County of how nonsuspension alternative punishments can work, said Chris McEvoy, a behavioral consultant at Wayne RESA, the intermediate school district for Wayne County public schools.

For the last five years, Crestwood High has implemented a positive behavior interventions and supports system, called PBIS. It has changed policies along the way in the hope of making Crestwood students feel the school is a partner, not an adversary, in their education.

Before PBIS, Crestwood had 41 suspendable offenses, including cellphone use, which merited a one-day suspension the first three offenses, and a five-day suspension the fourth time. Now there are only 15.

The school now offers hourlong in-school suspensions. Principal John Tafelski said he doesn’t want his students on their couch during the school day, he wants them in school. School social worker Chris Meussner acts as the last line of defense, attempting interventions with students who are on the verge of suspension. It doesn’t always work, but suspensions in 2014 were far below 2010 levels.

Out-of-school suspensions were just below 4,500 in 2010; they were just above 2,500 in 2014. In-school suspensions were approaching 3,500 in 2010; they fell below 2,000 in 2014 — and that’s with 60 more students. Fights have been slashed by more than half, and physical assaults against both staff and other students fell to miniscule levels in 2014. Cellphone violations fell from about 350 in 2010 to less than 50 in 2014.

The school gives “Charger Awards” randomly to students who arrive on time. Teachers can award students who are “caught being good” with gift cards. Access to the courtyard at lunch time is another carrot.

For students who don’t respond to any of that, the old toolbox of suspensions is still available.

Szymanski’s vision is already becoming a reality.

Some 275 public schools in Wayne County, including 41 in Detroit Public Schools, have PBIS programs, McEvoy said. Wayne RESA makes small grants, training and technical assistance available to schools looking to install PBIS programs. Wayne RESA is implementing PBIS in 30 of 33 public school districts in Wayne County, along with 35 charter schools, McEvoy said.

The judge closed the press conference with a plea for parents to speak up about school discipline issues at school board meetings, to demand that schools educate their children rather than offer them zero tolerance.

As Tafelski noted, it’s tough to suspend a student for carrying the cellphone her mother bought and then turn around and ask that same parent to support the new school millage. Rethinking school discipline puts the school, the parent and the child on the same team.

“What we have to do next,” McEvoy said, “is get policies in alignment with that goal.”