Safety and Discipline
|Parents and citizens perceive safety and discipline in the public schools much differently than do the principals and teachers who work in the schools. While all see classroom discipline as a problem, principals and teachers, unlike parents, rate safety and violence lower among public school issues. While the evidence shows that the likelihood of violence in the schools is very small, there remains a perception among some that the schools are unsafe. Until the Little Rock School District (LRSD) solves the real problem of discipline, it will not eliminate the perceived problem of safety.|
It is unquestioned that learning in elementary and secondary schools can only succeed in a climate of harmony, order, and mutual respect among students and their teachers. For public schools in Little Rock, the issues of school safety and discipline have assumed great importance because they are repeatedly cited as a cause for declining enrollment, especially among white students, in the Little Rock School District (LRSD). Achievement of the goal of a racially-integrated public school system is undeniably linked to how the public perceives the LRSD handles safety and discipline.
In discussing the subjects of this chapter, definitions are very important. School safety and school discipline are two very different yardsticks by which to measure the LRSD.
In this report: (1) the issue or problem of "safety" refers to the presence or absence of violence, that is, actions causing bodily harm; and (2) the issue or problem of "discipline" refers to the presence or absence of misbehavior that may interrupt a classroom but that does not involve bodily harm.
It is useful to reconstruct recent policy decisions of the LRSD related to school safety and discipline because the issue has been part of a wider controversy about juvenile crime. A chronology of events since 1989 shows the LRSD has been slow to recognize fully and respond appropriately to the fact that some youngsters settle their conflicts with violence. To be completely fair, however, this chronology also shows the cumbersome nature of solving public problems when major issues demand solutions that span multiple parts of the community. Children, after all, form most of their attitudes outside of school hours--at home, on the playground, and, increasingly, in unsupervised contacts in the streets.
In 1989, the LRSD hired experts from the National School Safety Center to provide broad and detailed strategies for improving school security. Gangs, fueled by the introduction of crack cocaine to Little Rock in the mid-1980s, were beginning to emerge in city neighborhoods. The LRSD fully or partially implemented recommendations to overhaul the written student discipline code, to establish a Department of Security, and to establish an alternative school.
Another 1989 recommendation was to insert full-time police officers inside junior and senior high schools. Both City Hall budget makers and the Little Rock Police Department were under pressure from the public to suppress a rising tide of youth crime. In 1989, three homicides in Little Rock were committed by juveniles. By 1992, juvenile homicides had climbed to 31.
The school board considered the recommendation for school resource (Police) officers several times in 1990 and 1991. In July 1991, the mayor and city manager publicly suggested that school resource officers were needed immediately. City Hall and the LRSD would each pay half the budget costs. The seven member LRSD Board, in a close four to three vote, finally agreed in December of 1991 to accept police in its secondary schools.
It had taken two years for even a thin majority of the LRSD Board to support the policy of police in the schools; it required another 20 months for implementation. Veteran principals were known to oppose the policy. A municipal judge spoke against police in schools.
In the meantime the LRPD was marshaling its front line to respond to crime in the streets. The city added 24, 13, and 17 new police in 1990, 1991, and 1992, respectively. A street narcotics unit, a gang unit, a youth investigation unit, foot patrolmen, and expanded vehicle patrol were committed into service. None was assigned to the public schools.
The opening of schools in the fall of 1993, almost two years after the school board policy decision, witnessed a "pilot" project that assigned five police, including one officer each to Central, McClellan, and Hall Senior High Schools, and Cloverdale and Southwest Junior High Schools. It was the peak period of the city's crime wave. A record 76 homicides were recorded in 1993 and a record number of other violent crimes were evident. Table 10-1 shows the record of the city's violent crime for the 1988 to 1995 period.
There has been and continues to be a reluctance on the part of school officials to invest in programs directly aimed at safety and discipline.2 Why? The reasons are multiple. One, educators minimize the problem because they do not feel they should have to deal with it in the first place. Second, they believe the problem is exaggerated by the news media and in the minds of parents. Third, depending on their level in the organization, they believe they will not be supported or will even get in trouble if they take action against misbehavior. Fourth, race has complicated the matter because African-American students appear disproportionately in discipline statistics; and therefore, both African-American and white school officials feel inhibited lest they be criticized by parents and lawyers of African-American children.
In short, school personnel at all levels feel there is not much they can or should do about safety and discipline. This mindset has yielded semi-paralysis. It appears school officials have a different definition of "acceptable" levels of safety and discipline than do parents. The perspective of school officials also differs from that of teachers, the front-line personnel, who perceive safety and discipline as bigger problems than do principals and higher-ranking officials.
In any event, one indication of the worth of the school resource officer program is the reaction of teachers. They were asked, "Would you favor or oppose the use of school resource (police) officers as a safety measure?" Among African-American teachers, 92 percent responded "favor" or "strongly favor;" among white teachers, 89 percent responded "favor" or "strongly favor." No other item in the survey received such high marks.
There also has been an unintended benefit of the school resource officer. The presence of these uniformed officers in the school has meant that many students in junior high and high school have had positive interactions with police officers. These interactions contribute to improved relations among citizens and law enforcement personnel in the long term.
As Table 10-1 makes clear, the combination of city and county policies has begun to reduce violence in the community. As later data will show,
patterns of violent behavior in some troubled schools may be interpreted as roughly paralleling community violence. In any case, it is important to discuss the continuum of school safety and where teachers and the public believe the LRSD fits on that continuum.
As previously noted, "school safety" when discussed in the current context of the LRSD, has distinctive definitions. A safety continuum exists that begins with acceptable behavior at one end, moves through ordinary misbehavior requiring discipline, and concludes with violent acts at the other end that are evidence of an unsafe situation. There is nothing new about the problem of school discipline. For three decades the Gallup Poll has asked Americans about public schools, and discipline has consistently emerged as the biggest single problem. Similar surveys by professional groups such as the National Education Association (NEA) have consistently identified classroom discipline as a major issue.
Little Rock is no different. While 56 percent of respondents in our citizen survey said the LRSD offers a "safe, orderly school environment," a strong minority of 41.9 percent disagreed. LRSD teachers were divided in their responses to the "safe and orderly" description of the LRSD: 70 percent of African-American teachers agreed and 53 percent of white teachers disagreed.
However one may qualify or interpret these numbers, they describe a very unsatisfactory situation. Would it not be reasonable to expect much higher positive percentages?
Among LRSD teachers, it is the faculty at the junior high schools who see school discipline most negatively. Sixty-three percent of junior high teachers (64 of 101 self-reported surveys) disagreed that their schools were safe and orderly. Viewpoints of junior high school teachers closely parallel discipline incident data from the LRSD files, which indicate that 60 percent of recorded disciplinary episodes in the LRSD occur in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. These results strongly suggest the need to focus on improving safety and discipline in the junior highs. The results may also point to the need for prevention programs before junior high.
The citizen survey probed the discipline issue using two approaches--a fixed response and an open response question. When asked to choose among fixed responses, 70 percent of the public said discipline in LRSD classrooms was "too lax." Only 14 percent responded "about right." Strong majorities of African Americans and whites said "too lax:" 61 percent of African Americans and 75 percent of whites selected this answer. In addition, when asked what they would change about the LRSD, the top choice among the public was "improve discipline."
Turning to the teachers, our survey showed similar results: teachers in the LRSD overwhelmingly identified "discipline" as their top concern. With almost no difference between African-American and white faculty, 87 percent of the LRSD teachers said classroom discipline was "too lax." When answering an open-response question, 63.7 percent of LRSD teachers said discipline was the district's top problem. (A distant second-place issue was parent apathy at 27 percent.)
Principals in the LRSD also see discipline as a chief issue. Of 26 principals responding to a mail survey, 10 said it was the LRSD's biggest problem. Twelve of 26 principals said LRSD discipline was "too lax" and 13 said discipline was "about right."
This survey data, especially that of the LRSD faculty, is strongly persuasive of the depth of the classroom discipline problems in the LRSD. According to one teacher,
This statement points out why discipline is such a serious issue in the schools. A relatively small number of unruly and disrespectful students can consume enormous amounts of a teacher's time and energy as well as greatly interfere with the learning of all the other students.
At the opposite end from acceptable behavior on the safety continuum is violent behavior in the schools. In the general surveys of the Little Rock public, "violence" was identified the second biggest problem confronting the LRSD. African-American and white households voiced this concern in unison--18 percent of each group cited violence in an open response question. In the mail survey of teachers of teachers and principals, they ranked school violence lower as a major issue for the LRSD. Just under 13 percent of teachers (with African-American and white faculty in agreement) indicated that violence was a major problem. This item ranked much lower than discipline, lack of parent interest in schools, the desegregation lawsuit, and an "out-of-touch" LRSD central administration.
LRSD principals also ranked the violence issue low. School violence, in the view of LRSD principals, did not match their concern for better discipline or for revising the desegregation plan. Only two of 26 principals responding in a mail survey said violence was the chief problem in the LRSD.
At the end of this report (Appendix E), detailed survey findings will show widely varying, contradictory, public attitudes toward the public schools. It is worth noting, however, that parents with children enrolled in the LRSD generally rate their children's schools as safe while households with children enrolled elsewhere rate public school safety much lower. This would appear
to reflect, at least in part, the results of receiving first-hand news about the schools rather than receiving third-hand information via the media, which are more likely to report bad news than good news.
In the Task Force surveys, public school parents reported very low rates of violence on school campuses. Very few white households and African-American households said their children had experienced injuries which required medical attention, 2.6 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively3
Recently the LRSD has begun to compile a more complete record of violent student behavior. Since July 1995, the LRSD and other school districts in Arkansas have been required to report all violent acts against teachers, staff, and students. Failure to comply with Act 888 of 1995 is punishable as a misdemeanor offense filed against the responsible school official. In time, Act 888 could produce useful comparative data.
The LRSD has drafted a rather complete student discipline code, which is issued to all students at the beginning of each school year. In general the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook is a clear statement of the behavior expected of students. The severity of punishment is made to match the seriousness of the infractions of the code. Violent behavior may be punished with suspension or expulsion. The context in which the Handbook must be applied is shown in Table 10-2, a five-year summary of disciplinary incidents in the LRSD.
The immediate message of Table 10-2 is that young adolescents in the junior high years are the most chronic behavior problems. Rates of reported fighting and assault are more than twice that of senior high students. This data is supported by a survey of LRSD students conducted by Temple University for Little Rock New Futures, which reported in the 1992-93 school year that 42 percent of junior high students said fighting was "often" or "always" a problem in their school. In contrast, 25 percent of senior high students responded "often" or "always" when asked about the frequency of fighting.
Another view of the level of serious, sometimes violent, behavior in schools can be obtained in Tables 10-3 and 10-4. Little Rock Police Department records were scanned to compile the number of police calls to senior and junior high campuses in the two most recent school years. Table 10-3 (Junior High Schools) and Table 10-4 (Senior High Schools) must be carefully interpreted as follows:
As recently as two years ago, such precise profiles of police reports at the five senior high schools and eight junior high schools in the LRSD were not possible. Act 888 changed all that. As noted earlier, another recent change occurred in 1994, when the LRSD for the first time accepted uniformed police officers in all secondary schools. Analysis of the number of police calls at secondary schools revealed a 140 percent increase in police reports between the fall semester of 1993 and 1994. There is no reason to believe senior and junior high schools experienced a surge in criminal activity during this time. The more likely explanation is that the presence of 13 school resource officers encouraged full reporting for the first time.
Table 10-3 partially confirms that junior high campuses are more troubled than senior high campuses. Police officials indicate that the relatively fewer reported episodes at the senior high levels are due in part to the fact that chronic offenders already having dropped out of school.
Data on school crime must be interpreted with caution. Roughly 70 percent of all reported offenses at junior and senior high campuses are classified as misdemeanors. As unsettling as the term "assault" may appear, the legal reality is that an unwanted "touching" of a person by another may be classified as a "simple assault," a misdemeanor in the criminal code. No actual harm may result. In addition, criminal law codifies any person's threat of bodily harm to another as a "terroristic threat" and a misdemeanor charge may result because of verbal behavior only.
Table 10-5 shows a final measure of school safety. School resource officers, since their full-time introduction in the secondary schools two years ago, have filed an average of 208 misdemeanor and 70 felony charges per school year. Taken together with the totality of field reports shown in Tables 10-3 and 10-4, these data may be interpreted as the first signs of establishing secure and untroubled schools, both in appearance and in fact. It will probably be three-to-five years before the full benefits of school resource officers are realized. The LRSD and the LRPD are only halfway on this journey.
In addition to regular law enforcement duties, school resource officers are expected to devote time to teaching crime prevention teaching in the classroom (one class per week) and to counseling students in their own extra-curricular groups. Conferences with parents and direct, one-to-one counseling with students also are expected of school resource officers. Such activities should have a positive long-term effect on the incidence of school
Definition and Rationale
An alternative school has a different mission than a regular school. An alternative school is designed to educate students who are disruptive in normal classrooms. Such schools yield a double payoff. First, removing students with behavior problems from regular classrooms results in an improved learning environment for the students that remain. This is a significant justification for alternative schools. Second, students assigned to alternative schools benefit from an environment that is geared to helping them move from a failure track to a success track.
The LRSD, with one alternative school at the junior-high level for about 60 students, has the smallest alternative program among the three Pulaski County districts. Members of the City Board of Directors have urged the Little Rock School Board to expand the program, with the city as a partner in the effort.
An alternative school provides increased options for helping students--future citizens--and, in particular, provides an alternative to expulsion, a subject that deserves a special word at this point. With an expulsion, a classroom or school may benefit immediately, but both the expelled student and society as a whole are likely to pay a high price in the long run. Law enforcement personnel, juvenile court judges, and various social service professionals often discourage expulsions, feeling the schools are handing off problems that no one outside the schools is prepared to handle either. At least while in school, they point out, students are in a generally positive environment. Also for some chronically-truant students, expulsion is a reward for their misbehavior. They want to be out of school. Alternative schools can literally rescue students who otherwise would be expelled into a dysfunctional life of crime, prison or probable dependency on others.
Therefore, the community should support alternative schools both for idealistic reasons and out of self-interest.
On the one hand, all children can learn, and schools should see each child as a treasure chest. You keep trying keys until one of them unlocks the child's mind to learning. In an alternative school, there are additional keys to try in the locks. Alternative schools require strongly motivated teachers with "tough love" and an unusual resistance to frustration. Most principals and teachers are not suited to such duty. Fortunately some are.
On the other hand, failure--represented by expulsion--is not just costly to the failed student. The national figure, widely known, is that approximately half of all prison inmates were school dropouts and do not hold a high school diploma. It is far less expensive to provide good alternative schools now than to build good prisons--costly monuments to failure--later. In the LRSD, given the empty seats across the district, it seems likely that the necessary buildings already exist to accommodate an expanded alternative school program.
What Should Alternative Schools Look Like?
Alternative schools should be available for young people who have not yet learned to exhibit appropriate behavior. Alternative schools should separate children from young adults. Perhaps two such schools should be established: one for the middle-school aged children, another for high-school aged children. Alternative schools should be located in facilities that are consistent with those throughout the LRSD. They should be adequately equipped with supplies, books, and equipment.
Most importantly, alternative schools should have a carefully chosen principal and staff. These educators must have exhibited successful past experience in working with unmotivated young people. Regular in-service training to update personnel on the most current research should be part of the work schedule. Faculty members should be provided incentives to teach in alternative schools. Incentives should include remuneration, availability of resources, classroom assistance, and support for experimentation. The district should not place on the faculty of alternative schools first-year teachers who, if they survive the year, will ask to transfer.
Teaching in an alternative school should be elevated in status so it is viewed as an assignment for the best, for it will take the very best to help these youngsters reach their potential. The student/teacher ratio should be lower than in regular schools, and other professional staff (psychologists, nurses, etc.) should be available. Obviously many of the young people in alternative schools are from abusive home situations where there is little parental supervision, encouragement, or concern. A number will have learning disabilities. Many will have additional psychological and adjustment problems. These problems must be dealt with if students are to have any chance for academic success.
Rules of conduct in alternative schools should be clear, and they should be strict. Students receiving an assignment to an alternative school already will have demonstrated that they are incapable of functioning in a normal environment; therefore, they should not expect to operate under a conduct code that is the same as in the school they left. The rules of conduct should be administered swiftly and fairly by school officials, and it should be clear to students that misconduct will not be tolerated.
Alternative schools, by whatever name chosen, must be a vital part of the educational program of the LRSD. It should not be difficult for a student to be removed from a regular classroom and placed in an alternative school. Repeated disruptive behavior should be sufficient cause, and certainly an act of violence should prompt immediate removal. The assignment should be made by school officials without the involvement of the school board other than reviewing the policies under which such assignments will take place. It should also be possible for students assigned to an alternative school to resume enrollment in a regular school when there is convincing evidence that past unacceptable behavior will not be continued. The primary goal of every person working in an alternative school should be to "graduate" their students back to a regular classroom. This goal should represent the most visible measure of a school's success, and when a student is "graduated," it should be cause for all to celebrate.
What Results Can be Expected?
Alternative schools will not solve all of the problems of all of the students assigned to them. For some it will only be another step in a life full of failure, but for others, it may be an opportunity to learn and conform to society's rules of acceptable conduct. For the first time some youngsters may be given the chance to understand their learning disabilities and to learn in spite of them. Others may receive help in dealing with psychological problems that prevent them from being successful. Some may be helped in identifying those future opportunities that are most appropriate for them to consider. But most important, it may be the first time some young people feel that someone really cares about them and their success; that someone values them as individuals.
Alternative schools can be very good for the LRSD, for the students, and for society. But they must be well planned, carefully staffed, and their goals pursued with intensity.
We offer four conclusions:
1. Safety and discipline are widely perceived as major problems in the Little Rock School District.
2. LRSD schools are, however, reasonably safe, meaning that the risk of being a victim of violence is low for LRSD students, faculty and staff.
3. However, discipline is a major problem, not just a perceived problem. Not only do the statistics support this conclusion, but the survey responses of LRSD teachers, including the written comments they provided, are even more convincing. The responses reflect the experiences of school personnel on the front-line where the problem is confronted directly.
4. Until the district solves the real problem of discipline, it will not eliminate the perceived problem of safety. In the eyes of parents and the public, safety and discipline converge as a single safety issue.
We offer these observations about options:
Tables 10-2, 10-3 and 10-4 indicate disciplinary problems are most acute at the junior high level, perhaps not surprising given the challenges and adjustments that young teens face. While intervention programs at this level are necessary, prevention programs at an earlier level that focus on the students who set the standards in dress and behavior for their peers would be more effective over time.
The district would do well to follow its own in-house recommendation: to offer conflict resolution training for every teacher, student, and administrator in all the schools, throughout the year.
Character education programs, discussed in a separate chapter, are a most promising long-run approach both to improving student achievement and to reducing discipline problems.
Alternative schools, discussed above, would not only be beneficial to students assigned to them but would also reduce the number of disciplinary problems in the district.
Once more we express a concern that there appears to be a mindset among school officials that leads them to minimize safety and discipline problems and keeps them from investing in stronger programs to address these problems. In this connection, if state laws hinder schools from eliminating discipline problems, then school officials need to enlist the help of local legislators, the governor, or others to make appropriate revisions. Similarly, if federal laws or regulations are hindrances, then the state's Congressional delegation should be asked for help. Sometimes constraints on action are more imaginary than real.
Parents are not reassured by the excuses that the public schools simply reflect the problems of the larger society, or that the schools are safer than the world outside. This is not good enough. Parents want schools that are more than reasonably safe. They want schools for their children that are very safe and orderly, period. If they cannot find such safety and order in the public schools, then the public schools will lose the competition with private schools, which can easily expel unruly students. However, if the public schools will provide a very safe and orderly environment, then they will win the competition with the private schools hands down--because of lower costs to parents and because of the quality and variety and depth of programs the public schools can offer.
The concern of African Americans that disciplinary policies be administered on a nondiscriminatory basis must be respected and taken seriously. In any broader community discussion of the public schools, everyone could benefit from frank discussion of this concern.
If these issues of safety and discipline were addressed as a top priority with visible determination and effect, for two or three years, it would make a dramatic difference in parental confidence and community respect for the Little Rock School District.
These issues--safety and discipline--are a fog over the LRSD. The district enjoys many present and latent strengths that would become visible if the fog were lifted.
1The LRSD reconvened its 1989 Safety and Security Task Force and published a second Safety and Security Task Force Report in April, 1994. Experts from the National School Safety Center again were asked to make specific recommendations, which included: (1) Building and maintaining LRSD-wide data systems which track disciplinary incidents in schools. (2) Training for students, teachers, and administrators in conflict resolution. (3) Improving file and data sharing among LRSD administrators and the juvenile courts, the LRPD, and the LRSD's own internal Security Department. (4) Organizing a discipline task force at each school embracing students, teachers, and parents.
2News stories recently published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the date listed) show the continuing reluctance of the school board to invest in safety and discipline programs: (1) November 11, 1995: City Directors are troubled that the school board has not moved ahead with a proposed partnership to expand alternative school programs. (2) June 18, 1996: the LRSD wants to reduce the district's share of the cost of the School Resource Officer program. (3) August 14, 1996: the district closed its Truancy Reduction Center, which had been open for three years. (4) August 23, 1996: on a 4 to 3 vote the school board rejected a proposal for a student Crime Stopper program.
3The full detail of household survey responses to issues of school violence is shown in Appendix E. The percentages reported in the narrative and in Appendix E can be confusing if not carefully interpreted. Among 163 African-American survey households identified with children enrolled in the LRSD, only seven reported violent incidents requiring medical attention, or 4.2 percent. Among 75 white households with LRSD children, two reported experience with violence serious enough to require medical attention, or 2.6 percent.
Appendix E reports these same findings in a different format, however, the source data is identical.
4Susan Roth, "City, School Officials Skirmish Over Alternative Education Effort," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 21, 1995.