Good kids, bad decisions: Why Camden schools are suspending fewer students

Camden one of many districts trying alternatives to suspensions

Camden High principal Alex Jones can point to a few stories that make him believe his school’s new approach toward suspensions is making a difference, like one recent day when a teacher told him about a ninth-grade student who was acting out in class.

A year ago, the student’s behavior might have triggered an automatic visit to the office, possibly angering the student further. Had the student yelled or thrown something, he might have faced a two-day suspension or worse.

Instead, the teacher asked the student to write about what was happening in his life -- an assignment for which he received class credit. The student penned a long letter about his mother’s death that week, which the teacher had known nothing about.

“What was important was that they were at the point in their relationship where he trusted her enough to say that,” said Jones last week.

Camden is one of a growing number of school districts nationwide that are experimenting with alternatives to suspensions, including training teachers in de-escalation techniques and, in one elementary school, a “calm room” for time-outs.

District officials say the early results are promising: As of late February in the 2015-16 school year, 1,005 students in the district had been suspended, according to spokesman Brendan Lowe. This year, that number was 436.

“Our goal was to change the narrative, and how we were looking at our students,” said Jones, who said Camden High reduced suspensions by creating an in-school suspension program and adjusting policies for cellphone and uniform violations. “They’re not bad kids. They’re good kids who sometimes make bad decisions. And we shouldn’t be villainizing them, we should be doing what we can to keep them in the building.”

As numerous studies have emerged that suggest suspensions fail to deter bad behavior and lead to harmful consequences, the federal government has encouraged districts to consider other forms of discipline. In Philadelphia, advocates last week called to abolish out-of-school suspensions for elementary school children, arguing the punishments do more harm than good.

In Camden, a state-run district that serves about 11,000 students in public schools, the odds are especially stacked against some kids. National studies show that black students are suspended at disproportionate rates, that students who are frequently suspended are more likely to drop out of school, and that dropouts are in turn more likely to end up in prison.

Camden students, most of whom are black and Hispanic, are also more likely to be suspended than their counterparts in neighboring suburban districts, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who pledged in 2015 to reduce suspensions, said the progress is a credit to the district’s teachers, who embraced the new program.

“We can’t have what I believe to be discriminatory practices where students are reflexively penalized,” he said.

At Yorkship, a school for kindergarten through eighth grade in the city’s Fairview section, health and physical education teacher Linda Brown-Bartlett and vice principal Charles Dawson decided last year to open the “calm room” in the building, a concept that has been well received in other districts across the country.

Brown-Bartlett, also an antibullying specialist, spent the summer fund-raising, and filled the room with toys and other supplies such as yoga mats, a small trampoline, and a tent with a cushion that serves as a quiet reading corner.

Teachers send students to the room when they act out or feel overwhelmed. Brown-Bartlett also meets there with a handful of students who come daily, whether they are having a bad day or not.

On one morning last week, she greeted two first graders, then led them through a series of yoga poses. A third-grade girl wandered in, referred by her teacher after she put her head down on her desk and stopped paying attention. As Brown-Bartlett finished with the younger kids, the girl got out some Play-Doh and began molding it into shapes.

Brown-Bartlett teaches the students self-calming strategies, like counting to 10. Many leave with a stress ball or coloring sheet they can use during class to refocus them.

Dawson said the room helps students cool down after fights. Afterward, he said, teachers still call parents to tell them about the fight -- but can then frame it in a positive way.

“You can call mom or dad and say, your child had a good day,” he said. “If they can turn it around, you’re emphasizing their ability to be resilient, rather than the bad behavior.”

More than 50 percent of Camden High students were suspended last year, according to figures from the Department of Education. Special-education students, who are often more likely to face discipline, make up more than a third of the school's population.

Jones said a review of the data found that many of those penalties stemmed from uniform violations or using cellphones at school. Often students would fail to show up for the resulting Saturday detention, triggering the more serious punishment.

“If we know people aren’t showing up for Saturday detention, it’s not working,” said Elan Drennon, who works on social-climate issues for the district. “Time to try something else.”

The district created an in-school suspension program at Camden High and Woodrow Wilson High School to act as an intermediary step between detention and a full suspension. They changed the zero-tolerance phone policy at Camden High, and allow certain uses of phones in school. Repeated violations of the uniform policy are now linked to whether students can participate in incentives such as field trips.

The in-school suspension program keeps students in the building, Jones said, but it is also used as a way for students to attend mediations for more serious violations, or write letters of apology. Teachers who get into confrontations with students sometimes initially want the student to be suspended, Jones said, but often the student is willing to make amends.

“Our students are very smart, and they know when they’re wrong,” he said. “We want to give them an opportunity to atone for that.”

Last year, Camden High logged 349 suspensions for students. With less than two months left in the 2016-17 school year, the number was 69 last week.

Camden officials have no control over the operation of the city's charters, such as Freedom Prep Charter School, which reported a 78 percent suspension rate last year even though it serves a relatively small number of special-education students.

But even some charter school networks, long associated with “no excuses” policies and strict discipline governing how students sit in class, stand in line, and even walk in the hallways, have signaled in recent years that they, too, are moving toward a softer approach.

LaQuanda Jackson, principal of McGraw Elementary, a public-charter hybrid Renaissance school in East Camden, said her school no longer follows the no-excuses model.

“Kids should come to school and feel joy,” she said. “And the no-excuses policy is lacking in that.”

Now, she said, administrators work with staff on recognizing implicit biases around race and other perspectives, and help them build relationships with students. The previous model, she said, sometimes built walls between student and teacher.

“It worked for Mastery for a while,” she said. “But as with all things, when you know better, you do better. We learned there was a better way.”

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