After a rocky rollout its first year, Madison’s school district is adding staff and boosting training to help implement its new behavior policy, hoping to address safety concerns and the sentiment among teachers and staff that it’s “not working.”
The goal of the policy — reducing suspensions and actually changing students’ behavior — remains the same. It’s a goal that many at the district agree with, with some saying the move away from a more punitive system would help address what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Yet some teachers have painted a chaotic picture inside the schools, one where students feel there are fewer consequences — and one where schools don’t have enough support staff to deal with behavior issues. So the school board has adopted several changes and boosted funding to help ease the concerns it heard a year into the major policy shift.
Margaret Stumpf, a fifth grade special education teacher, was among those who got applauded after she relayed safety concerns at a school board meeting in May. In one instance, Stumpf said, one student cried out of fear as two classmates fought and calls for support went unresponded.
“We are hit. We are spit at. We have doors slammed on our fingers and toes,” Stumpf said. “We’ve been pushed over. We’ve been kicked. We are filling out those assault reports, but often there are so many assaults [that] we don’t have time to do it.”
After that meeting, the board delayed its vote on updating the policy, giving officials more time to work on changes given the public’s input. The board ultimately approved changes to the behavior education plan at its June 1 meeting on a 6-1 vote, with TJ Mertz voting against, saying the board needed more time to consider the details.
What the district has learned throughout the implementation process, said Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, will “no doubt” make it a model for others looking to make similar changes.
“We knew that this would be a struggle, but a productive struggle, that some schools would be more prepared than others to make this shift,” Cheatham said. “And that’s why we’ve insisted on really close monitoring of this plan all year long.”
The changes in policy, which went into effect this school year, clarify the actions staff should take during incidents and change punishment levels for some behavior.
The changes also include $1.9 million in funds for more staff, professional development and more help for high-need students. That’s on top of the 29.4 positions totaling $1.7 million that the district had already allocated in its budget to implement the policy.
The latest staffing increases ensure each elementary school has a part-time behavior education assistant, and elementary schools with the most problems have a full-time position. There are also staffing increases in middle and high schools to help deal with behavioral issues.
The district began implementing the behavior education plan this past school year, scrapping the district’s previous code of conduct. In doing so, the district joined a nationwide trend to move away from a “zero tolerance” approach and instead focus more on “restorative justice,” with interventions that address the root of behavioral issues.
And the district has, indeed, dropped the number of students who get suspended, the district’s data show.
At the middle-school level, out-of-school suspensions dropped from 799 in the first three quarters last year to 624 this year. At the district’s high schools, they dropped from 758 to 503.
Out-of-school suspensions dropped 90 percent at elementary schools, largely due to the district eliminating suspensions from kindergarten to third grade last year. After hearing concerns, the district will now bring back one-day suspensions for those grade levels, although the district’s central office will need to approve any suspensions.
Still, the racial disparities in punishments remain, and they’ve actually increased slightly in middle schools and high schools.
The district’s African American students only total 18 percent of the student population, yet they received 62 percent of the out-of-school suspensions this year, up slightly from 59 percent last year.
The district’s new policy has also faced difficulties in seeing support from teachers and staff, which a joint survey between the district and the teachers’ union displayed.
That survey, for example, found only 18 percent of respondents thought the policy “had a positive effect on student behavior.” The low number was driven largely by teachers, with 13 percent of them agreeing with that statement, compared to the 46 percent of support staff that agreed.
The survey found teachers wanted more staff available to help with issues, as well as training on what the policy entails. Several teachers and staff, the survey pointed out, have left the district and cited the new policy as one reason for their departure.
The proposal the school board approved includes $328,000 for increased professional development, which Cheatham said should help clarify expectations.
Cheatham also said that the district will continue to adapt and learn from any implementation problems, saying that this year “won’t be perfect either.”
But the changes and funding the school board approved will help, she said, and the overall vision at the district will stay the same.
“We want to keep our students in school where they belong,” Cheatham said.