SHABAZZ
PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

An internal evaluation conducted by the Madison Metropolitan School District concludes its Behavior Education Plan “has not experienced the progress the district hoped to achieve, and many outcomes are not meeting expectations.”

The report said, since implementing the BEP three years ago, the district made progress in elementary schools, where 75 percent of teachers surveyed said they directly teach students expected behaviors and routines. MMSD did not see the same results in middle and high schools, where suspensions have steadily increased since its 2014 implementation.

The report also found that African-American students are 10.3 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension, up from 8 times more likely before the BEP. The report indicated that the suspension risk ratio for African-American students outpaced the national average, where black students are 3 to 4 times more likely to be suspended than white students.

MMSD's Research and Program Evaluation office compiled the report using qualitative and quantitative data, including student and staff school climate surveys, focus groups, observations, and behavior events documented by staff.

The BEP aimed to move away from exclusionary discipline measures, like out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, in exchange for a restorative approach to school discipline meant to educate students about behavior expectations and help them correct their actions through explicit teaching. The plan outlines how staff should respond to behavior to ensure fair, progressive application of consequences.

MMSD has spent $10.4 million in the last three years to implement the plan, with the amount increasing exponentially between years one and two.

The Madison School Board approved the BEP in March of 2014 and implementation began in the 2014-2015 school year. The report said that school-based staff felt unprepared for the implementation, coming five months after the school board’s decision.

A comment from a staff member included in the report said the initial rollout was “pretty problematic because it felt very forced” and “there was not nearly enough time given for people to get used to what it was or get resources to people about interventions.” Teachers surveyed also said they need more time and resources to address behavior and more professional development around the BEP.

At Monday’s Madison School Board meeting, the board spoke with MMSD administrators about lessons learned and strategies for improvement based on the report.

Child development and supportive school discipline expert David Osher, who worked with MMSD throughout their adoption of the BEP, said the district should honor the feelings of the staff and invest more resources into professional development.

“If I were to suggest a mistake that is being made across the world ... it’s not paying enough time to help people get good at what they do. To help people work through what they need to do so they can be committed to getting good,” he said.

Across the district, less than half of teachers said the BEP “aligns with their beliefs and values.” The numbers were lowest at the high school level, where 41% of teachers said it aligned with their values.

Leia Esser, director of student physical, mental, & behavioral health, said MMSD did not anticipate how much effort it would take to get staff on board with the plan.

“We believe we underestimated what it takes to shift adult beliefs and values, shaping or reshaping mindset to be one that is more progressive and restorative in nature,” she said. “Engaging in that mindset work, we know, is imperative to cultivate equitable school communities where all students feel they belong. In particular, we want our students of color to feel like they belong in our schools.”

Osher said implementing a system like the BEP is usually easier at the elementary level because primary teachers more often see their work as rooted in child development, versus subject matter.

“Oftentimes, even the best high school teachers see themselves as teaching subjects, not teaching kids,” he said.

The MMSD research team found that staff who are critical of the BEP saw it as lacking consequences for student behavior. Staff who supported the BEP said the plan does not take away consequences but allows teachers to progressively handle teaching expectations for behavior, like giving a warning or redirecting students before issuing a more punitive measure.

Although out-of-school suspensions sharply decreased across the board after the first year of the BEP, numbers have returned to pre-BEP levels for middle and high school students. More African-American high school students received an out-of-school suspension as a consequence last school year than in the 2013-2014 school year, before the BEP. The same is true for both middle and high school students with disabilities.

Researchers believed the suspension numbers rebounded because of changes in BEP policy between years one and two that increased the list of behaviors that warrant an out-of-school suspension.

Although the number of out-of-school suspensions increased between years one and three for middle and high school students, the length of suspensions are shorter. Across the board, students lost 4,814 days of school in the 2013-2014 school year, versus 3,767 in the 2016-2017 school year.

In-school suspensions, a practice where students remain in school but are removed from their classes to work on assignments, have gone up in recent years. Over 1,100 additional in-school suspensions were given to students last school year versus the year before the BEP implementation. The report said schools were not required to document in-school suspensions before the BEP, but numbers steadily rose year to year after implementation.

Researchers said that although over-representation of exclusionary consequences for African-American students and students with disabilities are "clear, consistent, and constant," they could not conclude if "disproportionality occurs because of inequitable treatment of different students leading to application of different consequences in similar situations, or because of actual differences in behaviors exhibited.”

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Although the report could not draw that conclusion explicitly, teachers and students surveyed said consequences are not doled out fairly for behavior infractions.

Forty-four percent of staff, across grade levels, surveyed last school year said when students break the rules, consequences are fair for everyone. That percentage is the same for students across the district.

When broken down by grade level, 51 percent of elementary students said consequences were applied fairly, dropping off to 43 percent by middle school and 38 percent by high school.

Madison School Board president James Howard affirmed these conclusions when thinking about his experiences speaking with students across the district about behavior.

“All of (the students) talk about how the system is not fair for kids of color. All of them,” Howard said. “It would be different if only the African-American kids said it, or the white kids said it, or the Latino kids said it, but talking to white students, they say ‘I can do this, but if he did it, it’s going to be a different outcome.’”

Some MMSD staff said the BEP works for most, but not all students. A staff comment highlighted in the report said school staff is, “struggling to make the (plan) work for students with the most intensive behavior needs.”

The report said that the students that have "the most intensive needs" are more likely to be African-American or students with disabilities. There are also students who fall into both categories.

Low-income students and multiracial students are similarly overrepresented in behavior events; While white, Asian, Latino, English language learners, and advanced learners are under-represented.

Madison School Board Vice-President Anna Moffit pointed out how disparities in discipline appear to harm African-American students with disabilities.

“I would really encourage folks to look at that intersectionality...When I look at (the data) in elementary I see a lot of (representation) for African-American students with disabilities, and when I get to high school, I see very few,” she said, referring to a chart in the report that showcased the overrepresentation in discipline events of African-American students with disabilities.

“To me, that doesn't tell me that we’ve done anything, but it tells me they are no longer in our schools and are someplace else. I could be wrong, but that is an assumption that I’m making.”