School project targets rate of expulsions

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The School District of Beloit is exploring ways to reduce expulsion rates such as the use of restorative practices, alternatives to expulsion and strengthening its existing Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports program, according to Director of Special Education Emily Pelz.

In the 2014-2015 school year 69 students were expelled, up from 58 in the previous year, according to the district’s annual report of administrative and expulsion hearings.

Training for staff in restorative practices has been held in December, June and most recently on Aug. 10. As opposed to simply punishing offenders, restorative practices puts offenders and those offended together in face-to-face discussions. Students gather in a circle to talk, practice forgiveness and make sure the issue is resolved.

“It’s a way to respond to challenging behavior using an approach the student can identify with,” Pelz said.

For example, if a student was picking on another student, the offender and the person picked-on would be put together in a circle with others who would speak in support of both sides. Everybody would get a turn to be heard. One of the goals for restorative practices to teach the offender what effects their behavior had on others.

Pelz said research shows restorative practices — similar to restorative justice used in the criminal justice system — reduces recidivism. It can be more informally used during class, or sessions can be held after school for more serious offenses.

“Some schools are really taking it and running with it. Beloit Learning Academy runs circles routinely,” Pelz said.

Restorative practices training also teaches staff how to use more affirmative statements with students as opposed to approaching them in a negative way. An example would be a teacher telling a student how the student’s an action makes him or her feel, what he or she saw and how it affected them. It’s hoped students will start modeling the type of communication with fellow students.

As the district plans more training, Pelz said it will be sending teachers and staff members to a “training of trainers” event in November. Most of the schools in the district already have some trained staff members and all administrators are trained.

Another way to address expulsions is offering alternatives to expulsion. It would include the possibility of a short or extended placement somewhere other than a student’s home school. Another alternative is to have students sign a contract vowing they won’t commit a particular offense or it will lead to an immediate expulsion. The contract might also require students to receive counseling. The contract can be used when a student has already come close to expulsion.

The final area to reduce expulsion is to strengthen the district’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. The district is already teaching students expectations and giving positive reinforcement on behavior.

Pelz said the next step would be to identify small groups of students who are violating rules and give them more intensive intervention such as having them check in with a trusted adult, pairing them with a mentor, undergoing behavior assessments or getting them involved in social, emotional and academic groups.

Pelz said the district’s Code of Conduct been consistent for four or five years now, and she doesn’t foresee any necessary changes to it.

In addition to other methods, the district will be reviewing data on a more regular basis to see what demographic groups in real time are receiving most of the office discipline referrals and will create action plans.

Counseling services available at the student-based wellness clinic may also help address the number of expulsions.

“Mental health plays a significant role in some of the discipline problems we have. To have that resource available is so helpful because families have so many roadblocks to accessing those services in the community,” Pelz said.

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