Updated, 9:59 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools is poised to take a new approach to student discipline, beginning in the middle and high school levels.
The Board of Education on Feb. 19 is expected to approve a revised code of student conduct along with restorative practices, a system of relationship building between teachers and students, and student to student, to help students learn to take responsibility for their actions, understand what they’ve done, and repair the damage.
“The old mentality was, ‘a kid acts up, just get them out of the building,’ and that just simply doesn’t work in our current approach. We need students in the building if we are going to close achievement gaps and build the learning that we hope for and expect,” Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said at Tuesday’s BoE meeting.
Expulsions spiked from 1,045 in 2014-15 to 1,490 in 2017-18, prompting the formation of a Committee to study what could be done, Costanzo said.
In addition, NPS hasn’t updated its disciplinary rules since 2012, and the code of conduct has been marked “draft” since April 2012 when the Board of Education did not approve a drafted revision, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said.
Suspensions have dropped this year due to new strategies, Roton Middle School Assistant Principal LaShante James said.
The statistics presented show that every Norwalk secondary school has fewer suspensions when comparing data from July 2017 through January 2018 with data from July 2018 through January 2019. On a per-school basis, here are the suspension numbers for each period:
- Brien McMahon High School: 259 / 166
- Norwalk High School: 159 / 123
- Nathan Hale Middle School: 58 / 32
- Ponus Ridge Middle School: 53 / 41
- Roton Middle School: 24 / 7
- West Rocks Middle School: 87 / 58
Each of the high schools has one more suspension in this school year than in the same time period in the previous year, going from seven to eight.
“Exclusionary policies should be policies of last resort because any missed time negatively impacts that child,” Brien McMahon High School Assistant Principal Barbara Wood said.
Restorative practices is an emerging social science studying methods to improve relationships, Costanzo said.
“When we began to look at how we approached school climate, restorative practices is really a whole student approach and is so much in line with many of the other initiatives that we had already begun that it seemed to be this really natural fit,” Wood said. “…. Most of what we’ll talk about when it comes to restorative practices is classroom-based. The goal is to be proactive so that we are not meeting with the assistant principal after a negative behavior. So really most of the work we are doing around restorative practices is proactive, 80 percent of it is classroom based.”
Norwalk High School English teacher Louis Shede explained that he attended an inspiring training session, and has since started some of his classes with a “circle”. He sits in a circle with his students and they discuss events and everyone listens to each other. A teacher explains how they felt when an incident occurred, and students see where they’re coming from, he said.
“Now I am able to move through my lesson more efficiently and … it’s a calming affect… there’s a sense of relief and students can move forward,” he said.
In addition to presenting two videos to the Board, administrators introduced two high school students who spoke of the positive effects of restorative practices.
Alejandra and Leslie, NHS sophomores, said their friendship had deteriorated to the point of police being called to the school, due to many rumors flying about who said what. When administrators talked to them one-on-one, “It felt unfair, I didn’t get to speak,” Alejandra said. When a circle was employed, “I felt like I was listened to, I was listening to Leslie. She heard my feelings. It fixed the problem when talking individually didn’t help us at all,” she added.
Instead of the “almost fight,” their friendship has mended, and Leslie gave Alejandra a ride to the Board meeting.
Female Board members indicated enthusiastic support.
One of the videos, shown below, mentioned the effects of disciplinary practices on other students. Sarah LeMieux observed that traditional discipline can create a negative idea of a “problem child,” and exclude that child.
“Not only does that have an impact on other children because they see the way that that child is being related when they are having a problem or a struggle, but also every child is a resource and if we are not activating and engaging the problem child, we are missing whatever they have to offer to the group,” she said. “… I could not be more supportive of this. I think this is fantastic, this is probably my favorite board meeting that I have been to.”
“This is just a dream come true,” Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said, going on to question if Norwalk has the manpower to “build this all out.”
Adamowski said he and Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch are appointing a Committee to study guidance services.
“We are not sure we know that,” he said. “We do know that in the old system, with the old staff we had, we didn’t get the desired result.”
“What we will need is a whole lot more guidance counselors if we don’t resolve what goes on in every single class… to keep those kids in class and learning,” Bruce Kimmel said, also indicating support for restorative practices.
“I want this,” Julie Corbett said. “Our students deserve this, our staff deserves this in our building, and I think the long-term benefits to save time will pay off in the long run but in the short term I am also struggling with how to figure out how this in combination with everything else going on in Norwalk actually happens. Do we have not only the staff but also just the minutes in the day to make all of this happen.”
“I have heard from various sources that … we are not enforcing rules, we are kind of looking the other way,” Chairman Mike Barbis said, asking if students are getting a free pass so that the numbers go down.
Adamowski said work needs to be done.
“I have heard these concerns as well,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said. “While we are struggling to implement something new, we may not have it right.”
The American Federation of Teachers is “all in” on restorative practices, aware since 2014 of the effects of disciplinary practices that tend to “demean and criminalize,” she said.
“We can’t really teach until we have a more effective set of relationships in the classroom,” she said. “Disciplinary issues are of great concern in this district and this is definitely the way we should be going. We should not be implementing restorative justice for the purpose of reducing suspension numbers, we should be focusing on the people and the relationships, and let the numbers take care of themselves because this is a powerful thing if done well and done properly.”