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J.C. Bowman: Time to address school culture, chronic behavior problems

J. C. Bowman • Updated Sep 29, 2018 at 5:00 PM

School culture can have a variety of descriptors that are not universally identified. In many ways, it is similar to the characterization of pornography by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it,” in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964.

School culture is the set of core values that shape patterns of behavior, attitudes and expectations in a school. For educators it can be associated with morale, job satisfaction and effectiveness, as well as to student learning, achievement and school safety. The culture in a school can support or limit student learning. It also impacts every action and decision in a school, from management by school administration, how curriculum and classroom materials are selected, all the way down to the interaction of students.

Educators seek to promote safe, supportive learning environments that cultivate academic growth for all students. If we want to develop all children into healthy and productive citizens, we must also develop their essential social, emotional, and intellectual skills. This means we need to address some of the more critical issues many educators in our public schools’ face, chronic discipline issues with students with behavior issues that cannot be easily addressed in a classroom setting, with an unsupportive school climate. Engaged students rarely cause discipline problems.

Chronic behavior problems

The U.S. Department of Education has pushed back against the zero-tolerance policies put in place in many states in recent years. In some cases, this was certainly justified. The most passionate proponents of zero tolerance have expanded the scope of student discipline to include the juvenile justice system. In this situation, an offending student is arrested and charged with a crime in addition to receiving a suspension or expulsion.

Our state and local policies must consider a tiered approach to student discipline. Good policies should be grounded on a plan developed by educators in the district, on a school-by-school basis, if needed. A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work. Texas Appleseed, an organization that seeks to derail the “school to prison pipeline,” offers these recommendations to schools and districts:

Develop, implement and regularly evaluate a schoolwide disciplinary plan that employs research-based strategies that have been shown to reduce the number of disciplinary referrals.

Ensure that expectations for behavior and consequences for misbehavior are well defined, easily understood, and well publicized to faculty, staff, students and parents.

Regularly recognize and positively reward genuine good behavior.

Provide ongoing teacher and staff training in positive behavior management, as well as training to enhance cultural competency and the ability to form a positive relationship with parents and students.

Adopt formalized, campus-based programs to monitor at-risk students to prevent escalating disciplinary action and support their success in school.

Strengthen transition planning, monitoring, and support of students upon their return to school from a disciplinary suspension or alternative school placement.

Engage parents and guardians as partners in reinforcing positive behaviors at school.

It is true that suspensions, alternative school placements and expulsions should not be a first step on student discipline. However, it must be included as an option and deterrent to chronic behavior issues. There are also some behaviors that may warrant more severe punishment. The underlying principle: all students and educators should feel safe in their classrooms.

Statewide initiative

Clarksville-Montgomery County School System has implemented an innovative and more comprehensive effort to address some of these issues, which could be a model for other districts in the state. CMCSS is working to enhance emotional health and substance abuse and suicide prevention efforts on campus to ensure that schools have the strongest possible mental health safety nets in place. This benefits all stakeholders. It is also one of their strategic goals. This “mental health initiative” is designed to assist students as they transition into thriving adults.

All districts should look to enhance their behavioral programs, including mental health, bullying and suicide prevention programming and systems. They must develop expert resources and create partnerships so that students have the support they need, when and how they need it. We must educate and assist the professionals in our classrooms and schools to learn to leverage this assistance when and how they need it, as well.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County strategic plan is innovative. It outlines how Clarksville-Montgomery County approached their strategic work of providing resources and supports to meet students’ needs social and emotional needs. This has been a long-term initiative of Professional Educators of Tennessee to address the growing behavior problems in all of our schools, assist social workers, and identify support for parents.

In 2019, we must consider a statewide school initiative for our next governor and state policymakers to champion. When the home life is stable, test scores and learning will improve. The learning environment increases school productivity. More importantly, we don’t lose our best and most highly qualified educators due to the stress of the environment with increased behavioral problems and disciplinary action. We must be proactive.

The Clarksville-Montgomery County strategic plan

This could be a model for other LEAs across the state, and something the state could model nationally. It will require coordination and better collaboration.

Principal action plans that focus on helping students, understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for other, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

J.C. Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee. Cathy Kolb is president of the Professional Educators of Tennessee and a teacher in Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. Professional Educators of Tennessee is a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.

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