Reforming School Discipline in Madison: Seize the Educational Opportunity

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is currently engaged in drafting a new Student Conduct and Discipline Plan, with the school board’s goal of implementing that new plan in the 2014-15 school year.  Recently, the ad hoc committee working on revising this plan released its first draft.  For reasons that remain unclear, neither the school board, the ad hoc committee, nor the district administration has made clear how and when the public will have an opportunity to provide input into this important plan.  However, since systems change rarely happens for those who wait, it is important for advocates who want to seize the educational opportunity to end Madison’s schools to prison pipeline and eliminate racial disparities, to engage in this plan now.  It is in that spirit that I offer the following input on this plan.

At the outset, it is important to note that our public schools can and must teach appropriate behavior.  Therefore, the Student Conduct and Discipline Plan, would be better named the Student Conduct and Education Plan. Only when educators recognize that the mission of all behavior management should be education, will we improve the educational results for all children.  It is time for MMSD to embrace a mission that no student should ever be denied an education.  While some students may have such highly challenging behavior that they need a specialized setting for their education, if anything, those students need more education, not less.

In addition, the draft plan does not list any goals.  Without goals, how will we know if the plan is working?  Laudable goals that should be applied to this plan include:

  • reduction in the number of students suspended;
  • reduction in the number of students expelled;
  • increase in the overall safety of students and staff;
  • reduction in the racial and disability disparities in suspensions and expulsions;
  • increase in the educational performance of the student body;
  • decrease in racial and disability disparities in educational performance;
  • decrease in truancy;
  • decrease in drop out rate;
  • increase in graduation rate;
  • increase in college acceptance rate; and
  • increase in post-high school employment rate.

These lofty goals will certainly not be achieved at once, so a 5 year plan for gradual improvement in each area with specific targets for each year should be embedded in the plan with built-in review and accountability measures put in place.

Next, the draft states the purpose of the plan.  While the purposes listed are fine, and fortunately include “support positive behavior change in students,” additional purposes should be added, including:

  • Identifying home and community issues, including health issues that could be contributing to behavior challenges and connecting families to appropriate resources to assist with those issues;
  • Adding data review to the already stated purpose of ensuring that “students are treated fairly and without discrimination,”
  • Connect quality education with behavior improvement, as it is well known that frustrated students often misbehave out of frustration in the classroom;
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses at the classroom, school and district-wide level on an ongoing basis to improve on weaknesses by replicating promising practices; and
  • Using behavior challenges to engage in the child find obligation of state and federal special education law to evaluate whether these children may qualify for special education supports and services.

The next section of the draft lists various Rights & Responsibilities.  These rights and responsibilities will only become a reality if those responsible for enforcing them are held accountable for doing so.

The Student Rights & Responsibilities include many good things.  However, they are missing this all important right:

  • Access to appropriate supports and services to succeed in school.

The Parent/Guardian Rights & Responsibilities also includes many good things.  However, they are missing:

  • An in-school ombudsman to help parents resolve issues as quickly as possible.
  • Reasonably quick response time from the school district when parents express concerns.

The draft School Administrator Rights & Responsibilities is a good start, but critically it fails to include the responsibilities to:

  • Be held accountable for the successes and failures to achieve the goals of the plan at both the school building and district-wide level.

The Central Office Rights & Responsibilities must also include accountability measures. In addition, it should include:

  • Clearly defined purpose of police presence which should be to carry out the goals of the plan, including reducing the school to prison pipeline, not increasing it.
  • Clearly defining lines of authority between school based staff and central office based staff when handling behavioral challenges, which is currently quite muddled.

Finally, the Board of Education Responsibilities must include holding those responsible accountable for identified success and failures in achieving the gold of the plan.

The best part of the draft is the inclusion of many proactive strategies to improve behavior such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS), but even here the draft remains unclear as to how PBS will be applied; who will be accountable for its successful implementation, what are the lines of authority in its implementation, and will it be implemented district-wide.

The draft identifies many good Intervention Strategies, but misses the mark by failing to connect Effective Classroom Management with Quality Teaching.  In the draft’s list of many pro-active intervention strategies, Trauma Informed Care should be added.  In addition, it remains unclear how these strategies will be applied, who decides when they will be applied, who will be held accountable for their application, and what resources will be provided to ensure that they can be successfully applied.

It is good to see the draft acknowledges the obligation to follow state and federal special education law.  However, as mentioned above, one aspect of that law that is left unmentioned is the child find obligation to use repeated behavioral challenges as a trigger to evaluate students for potential special education supports and services.

The draft concludes with a complex behavior response chart about which I will save in-depth comment for a future draft, other than to mention four critical missing factors:

  1. Identification of specific staff support when assistance is needed;
  2. Interventions should include support for academic challenges the student experiences;
  3. As interventions move up in intensity, review should include whether prior interventions were applied appropriately;
  4. No loss of educational time should be allowed even if removal from the classroom or traditional school building is absolutely necessary.

In sum, it is laudable that the MMSD school board has taken some initial good steps in revising its Student Conduct and Discipline Plan.  Now is the time for advocates and the MMSD to come together to polish the plan and improve educational outcomes and safety of all of our students.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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Wisconsin Fails to Protect the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

As I reported last May,

I joined with the ACLU in filing a complaint with the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which clearly documents that Wisconsin’s private school voucher program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Recently, after a lengthy investigation, DOJ issued a directive to the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), which makes clear that DPI must eliminate discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee voucher program.

Since I am no longer at Disability Rights Wisconsin, I am not directly involved in that complaint.  However, my sources recently provided me with DPI’s stunning rebuke to DOJ in a letter dated November 25, 2013.  This letter is stunning for the length of time it took DPI to reply (over 7 months) demonstrating DPI’s utter indifference to the plight of children with disabilities in Wisconsin’s voucher (Choice) school program. It further disappoints due to DPI’s failure to accept responsibility to address the very real discrimination these students experience in this program.  As this letter is not available on-line, you can e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick if you want a copy.

First, DPI takes the position that it does not discriminate against children with disabilities in the administration of the voucher school program.  This, of course, misses the entire point of the complaint, which never accused DPI of such discrimination.  The complaint alleges massive discrimination by the voucher schools in keeping children with disabilities out of their schools, and further, that as administrator of the program, DPI must prevent and remedy such discrimination.

Next, while DPI has agreed (in an unspecified timeline) to,

establish and publicize a complaint procedure for individuals to submit complaints to the DPI regarding disability-related discrimination in the Choice program,

it goes on to express concern that it has no authority to do anything about many of those complaints, by stating that it can only withhold voucher funds regarding discrimination by voucher schools in the admission of students with disabilities.  While this is some progress, it does not address the very real failure of voucher schools to accommodate the educational needs of children with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In response to DOJ’s request that DPI gather disability related information from voucher schools, it then goes on to complain that it,

lacks statutory authority to force Choice to schools submit the information required for items requested.

What is so utterly disappointing about this continual denial of responsibility is that:

  1. DPI has done nothing to seek the authority it alleges it needs; and
  2. DOJ has made it clear that DPI’s obligation is under federal law (the ADA), so the lack of a state statute providing similar authority is irrelevant.

Can you imagine if DPI took the position that it had no authority to respond to discrimination against racial, ethnic or religious groups by voucher schools?  The public outcry would be tremendous, and so it should be in this instance as well.

Fortunately, DPI has agreed to conduct public outreach about the school choice program to students with disabilities, including the rights of students with disabilities in those programs. The problem, of course, is that if DPI will not enforce the rights of those students, there will be a serious credibility gap in that outreach.

Remarkably, DPI even refuses to provide ADA training to voucher schools, stating that,

DPI does not provide ADA training for any public schools in Wisconsin.

Instead, it is “willing” to have the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) conduct that training.  

As one of the initial filers of this complaint, I certainly hope that DOJ will not simply accept DPI’s excuse that it has no authority under the ADA.  Further DPI should use this as an opportunity to push for more authority to hold voucher schools accountable for their long-standing discrimination against children with disabilities.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Family: the Building Block for Healthy Communities

The rapid pace of our increasingly information based world continues to challenge society’s ability to build and sustain healthy and viable communities.  In both my personal and professional life, I strive to build and enhance many communities, including in my neighborhood, as I wrote about previously. Healthy neighborhoods, of course, start with healthy and supportive families.  From an institutional basis, there are great programs designed to support healthy families including Healthy Families America

a program of PCA America, strives to provide all expectant and new parents with the opportunity to receive the education and support they need at the time their baby is born.

Prevent Child Abuse America, founded in 1972 in Chicago, works to ensure the healthy development of children nationwide. The organization promotes that vision through a network of chapters in 50 states and nearl 600 Healthy Families America home visiting sites in 39 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Commonwealth of the Marianas, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Canada. A major organizational focus is to advocate for the existence of a national policy framework and strategy for children and families while promoting evidence-based practices that prevent abuse and neglect from ever occurring.

Of course, there are many other wonderful public and private programs that strive to support and nurture healthy families.  Indeed, even the World Bank recognizes that healthy children lead to healthy economies. But these programs cannot replace the individual effort needed to sustain healthy families.

My in-laws, Sandy and Gloria Spitzer, have gone to great lengths to keep their far flung family connected with each other.  While they remain based in their hometown of St. Louis, their children are spread from coast to coast in 4 cities, Boston, Madison, St. Louis and Irvine, California.  Their 8 grandchildren, most of whom are adults now, are similarly spread out, adding an additional state, New York, into the mix.  They are also blessed with a great grandchild in California.  When they grew up, all of their siblings and first cousins remained in St. Louis, so although it took some effort to convene family gatherings, it was not as difficult as it is in today’s world.

To their credit, they formed a Family Foundation, which has two purposes.  First, they have set aside sufficient funds for the entire family (all 4 generations) to gather on an annual basis. This year, we gathered had a lovely gathering that allowed us to celebrate the New Year together, including a rousing game of canasta.

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The second purpose of the Foundation is to make charitable gifts to maintain my in-laws’ long standing dedication to tzedakah (Hebrew for charity, but literally: “righteousness” or “justice”).  In order to insure family unity and collaboration after my in-laws pass away, their family foundation will pass onto their 4 children, who will be required to hold a family meeting once a year to determine which donations the Foundation will make.  Thus, my in-laws have wisely used estate planning both to keep their family together, and to continue their family’s righteous charity through tzedakah.

I am truly blessed to be a welcome part of my wife’s family for over 31 years.  I look forward to many more years of building community with the Spitzer family.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Federal Government takes Stand Against Schools to Prison Pipeline

Today, the U.S. Dept. of Education joined with U.S. Dept. of Justice in issuing important guidance on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of Student Discipline.  This extensive 23 page letter with an 8 page appendix begins by reviewing the data uncovered by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CDRC) conducted by the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  This data reveals significant racial disparities in the administration of student discipline.  Among the findings are:

  • African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
  • Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled.
  • Over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

Most significantly, the guidance states that,

research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.

This is because

in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem. 

It is important to understand that,

The CRDC data also show that an increasing number of students are losing important instructional time due to exclusionary discipline. The increasing use of disciplinary sanctions such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to law enforcement authorities creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes, and can contribute to what has been termed the “school to prisons pipeline.” Studies have suggested a correlation between exclusionary discipline policies and practices and an array of serious educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance and diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems.

The guidance letter then specifically points out prohibited practices including intentional discrimination by disparate treatment, i.e., administering harsher discipline on students due to their race (or other protected class) for the same behavior as another student; and discrimination through disparate impact where one racial (or other protected class) group receives overall harsher or more discipline than another without valid justification.  To determine whether this is occurring, the federal government will ask the following questions:

  1. Has the discipline policy resulted in an adverse impact on students of a particular race as compared with students of other races?
  2. Is the discipline policy necessary to meet an important educational goal?
  3. Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school’s stated educational goal with less of a burden or adverse impact on the disproportionately affected racial group, or is the school’s proffered justification a pretext for discrimination?

Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense – such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform; corporal punishment policies that allow schools to paddle, spank, or otherwise physically punish students; and discipline policies that prevent youth returning from involvement in the justice system from reenrolling in school. Additionally, policies that impose out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for truancy also raise concerns because a school would likely have difficulty demonstrating that excluding a student from attending school in response to the
student’s efforts to avoid school was necessary to meet an important educational goal.

From an advocacy perspective, this means that if advocates file complaints against school districts for discriminatory discipline practices, and the federal government substantiates the complaint, the federal government may require one or more of the following remedies:

  • correcting the records of students who were treated differently regarding the infraction and sanction imposed;
  • providing compensatory, comparable academic services to students receiving in-school or out-of-school suspensions, expelled, placed in an alternative school, or otherwise removed from academic instruction;
  • revising discipline policies to provide clear definitions of infractions to ensure that consequences are fair and consistent;
  • developing and implementing strategies for teaching, including the use of appropriate supports and interventions, which encourage and reinforce positive student behaviors and utilize exclusionary discipline as a last resort;
  • providing training for school personnel on revised discipline policies and classroom management techniques;
  • providing school-based supports for struggling students whose behavior repeatedly disrupts their education and/or the education of other students;
  • designating a school official as a discipline supervisor to ensure that the school implements its discipline policies fairly and equitably;
  • conducting and/or reviewing comprehensive needs assessments to ensure they are effective in measuring the perceptions of students and other members of the community in connection with the administration of school discipline, and using the results of these assessments to make responsive changes to policies and practices;
  • at least annually, conducting a forum during the school day that provides students, teachers and administrators the opportunity to discuss matters relating to discipline and provide input on the school’s discipline policies;
  • developing a training and information program for students and community members that explains the school’s discipline policies and what is expected of students in an age-appropriate, easily understood manner;
  • creating a plan for improving teacher-student relationships and on-site mentoring programs; and
  • conducting an annual comprehensive review of school resource officer interventions and practices to assess their effectiveness in helping the school meet its goals and objectives for student safety and discipline.

Finally, the Appendix includes important recommendations to improve school climate, including:

  • Creating safe, inclusive, and positive school climates that provide students with supports such as evidence-based tiered supports and social and emotional learning.
  • Providing all school personnel, including teachers, administrators, support personnel, and school resource officers, with ongoing, job-embedded professional development and training in evidence-based techniques on classroom management, conflict resolution, and de- escalation approaches that decrease classroom disruptions and utilize exclusionary disciplinary sanctions as a last resort.
  • Ensuring that school personnel understand that they, rather than school resource officers and other security or law enforcement personnel, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.
  • Ensuring that discipline policies include a range of measures that students may take to improve their behavior prior to disciplinary action.
  • Emphasizing positive interventions over student removal.
  • Developing a policy requiring the regular evaluation of each school’s discipline policies and practices and other school-wide behavior management approaches to determine if they are affecting students of different racial and ethnic groups equally.
  • Collecting and using multiple forms of data, including school climate surveys, incident data, and other measures as needed, to track progress in creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive and positive educational environment.

In sum, this landmark guidance is an important step in eliminating the Schools to Prison Pipeline.  Now it is up to advocates and school districts to make sure this guidance is implemented and that the Schools to Prison Pipeline becomes a thing of the past so all students can thrive and learn in safe schools.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Respect: Where Systems Change Starts

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, said it best in her anthem, Respect, written by the late, great, Otis Redding.

All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect

In my nearly 3 decades of civil rights work seeking systems change for a better world for many disenfranchised people, the lack of respect for basic human rights is what repeatedly brings clients to me seeking help.

Many years ago, I was meeting with Wisconsin Native American leaders from the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council.  I asked them how best non-Natives could work with them.  They gave a simple and quite appropriate response: “Just give us respect.”

While it seems simple, the sad truth is that our world would not be in the sorry state that it is in, if everyone simply respected everyone else’s right to live life with basic human decency. Just imagine a world where:

  • Elders were treated respectfully instead of with the disdain that results in abusive treatment in many nursing homes;
  • People with disabilities were treated respectfully so that they could obtain a quality education and good employment and health care;
  • People of color were not subjected to the disrespect of racial profiling demeaning them on a daily basis;
  • and of course, the list could go on & on.

recent study of 26 high-achieving, high-poverty schools in Texas bolsters decades of effective schools research. Effective schools exhibited the following characteristics: a strong focus on ensuring academic success for each student; a refusal to accept excuses for poor performance; a willingness to experiment with a variety of strategies; intensive and sustained efforts to involve parents and the community; an environment of mutual respect and collaboration; and a passion for continuous improvement and professional growth.

When I am successful on behalf of my clients, I not only obtain justice for my clients, but a new found respect from their former adversary. It is this respect that brings real systems change.

It really does not matter what the environment is because respect is the root of progress. Indeed, business leaders recognize that a workplace without respect cannot succeed. All leaders must build a culture of respect.  To do so, they must:

  • Teach respect.
  • Adapt respect to the environment.
  • Model respect, and
  • Praise respect.

Whether in school, the work place, or on the street, increasing respect for each other can only improve the human condition.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.