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Portland teachers say district's new discipline policies are dangerous

District reports half as many suspensions and expulsions since 2013

Two dramatically different pictures of school wellbeing were presented at the last two Portland Public Schools board meetings, Aug. 25 and Tuesday, Sept. 1. PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS LOGO - Portland Public Schools logo

The presentations come as the nation debates the effectiveness and racial prejudice inherent in many school disciplinary policies sometimes referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Suspensions and expulsions have a strong correlation to higher drop-out rates.

Last week, the board heard a presentation of the team under Chief Equity Officer Lolenzo Poe regarding its efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. Poe’s team said they were well on their way, having already achieved a nearly 50 percent reduction in overall exclusions. The team admitted, however, that more work needed to be done to meet the district’s goal of halving the discipline disparity of black and Native American students, who are still excluded at close to three times the rate of their white peers.

Last year’s data shows an overall decline from the 2012-13 school year from 4.7 percent to 2.4 percent of students with out-of-school suspensions or expulsions. Black students were excluded at a rate of 6.9 percent last year, compared to 14.8 percent in 2012-13. Hispanic students dropped to 2.4 percent from 5.1 percent.

But in Tuesday’s meeting, the Portland Association of Teachers union presented its case that many teachers are deeply concerned about what they say is a lack of support and a manipulation of data to meet those goals.

Woodlawn School teacher Aubrey Pagenstecher told the board that the alternative discipline processes were ineffective or not in place, students did not get consequences for violent behavior, there were too few specialists, and that staff were discouraged from reporting behavior or had their reports downgraded.

“...We are doing our students a disservice if the needle is moving due to technical changes...,” Pagenstecher said, urging the board to question the data presented to them the week before. “I just really question whether it can be quite so fast-acting.”

The testimony of five PPS teachers underscored a presentation of data from a survey conducted last spring. With about 1,000 teachers responding to the survey, 34 percent said they felt unsafe at their school, compared to 14 percent the year before. The survey also showed 50 percent of respondents felt disciplinary guidelines were not clearly communicated.

PAT Vice President Suzanne Cohen said the union is supportive of reducing exclusionary discipline but by reducing the behaviors that lead to the discipline.

“The whole goal is we want to make sure our schools are safe,” Cohen said. “We are concerned about some of the data we saw last week.”

Cohen said PPS has a poor track record for applying policy changes and has created a patchwork of disciplinary systems across the district. She also argued that the district’s spectrum of special education services has lost its middle range.

“What we’ve seen is sort of a hollowing out of those services,” she said. “(Students going into) general education without supports, which can escalate safety concerns, or, ironically, the student is placed in a more restrictive program.”

Some on the board seemed skeptical of the efforts by the administration to lower exclusion rates.

In one exchange, school board member Mike Rosen, who questioned why 2012-13 was used as a baseline when the new effort is now entering its second year, challenged the Chief Equity Officer to justify his programs. The new efforts include a triad of teacher training and intervention models: Collaborative Action Research for Equity, Positive Behavior Intervention & Supports and Restorative Justice.

“Is it fair to say that the exclusionary discipline rate has been dropping significantly for four years prior to putting in the efforts that we’re putting in now?” Rosen asked.

“I would say they are declining,” Poe answered. “Significantly is a relative term depending on where you sit.”

“You’re seeing our strategies evolve here,” Superintendent Carole Smith replied later. “We’re finding what’s working and doing more of it.”

School board member Julie Esparza Brown, a Portland State University professor in the special education department, said a key component of real change would be to ensure that teachers understand where kids are coming from. Drawing an example from her Chicana culture, Brown says: “You could be expelled because of cheating on a test, or (teachers could) understand that our mindset would be to help our friend: that the group does better when we help each other out.”

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