Why Some LAUSD Teachers Are Balking at a New Approach to Discipline Problems

Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2015

In a South Los Angeles classroom, a boy hassles a girl. The teacher moves him to the back of the room, where he scowls, makes a paper airplane and repeatedly throws it against the wall. Two other boys wander around the class and then nearly come to blows.

“Don’t you talk about my sister,” one says to the other. The teacher steps between them.

When she tries to regain order, another boy tells her: “Screw you.”

It’s another day of disruption on this campus in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has been nationally hailed by the White House and others for its leadership in promoting more progressive school-discipline policies. The nation’s second-largest school system was the first in California to ban suspensions for defiance and announced plans to roll out an alternative known as restorative justice, which seeks to resolve conflicts through talking circles and other methods to build trust.

The shift has brought dramatic changes: Suspensions districtwide plummeted to 0.55% last school year compared with 8% in 2007-08, and days lost to suspension also plunged, to 5,024 from 75,000 during that same period, according to the most recent data.

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But many teachers say their classrooms are reeling from unruly students who are escaping consequences for their actions.

They blame the district for failing to provide the staff and training needed to effectively shift to the new approach–and their complaints are backed up by L.A. schools Supt. Ramon Cortines. He said the new discipline policies, which were pushed through by the Board of Education and former Supt. John Deasy and which he supports, were poorly executed. {snip}

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Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the union backs the new approach and that teachers with sufficient support have used it effectively at such high schools as Augustus Hawkins in South L.A. and Roosevelt in Boyle Heights. But widespread complaints from teachers without such support have prompted union plans to start its own training.

“We’re now carrying the consequences of . . . not enough staffing to make it work and a lot of frustration,” Caputo-Pearl said.

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Only 307 of the district’s 900 campuses have so far received training under the district’s five-year restorative justice plan, according to Earl Perkins, assistant superintendent of school operations. Last year, the district only budgeted funds for five restorative justice counselors until community pressure pushed officials to increase that to 25. This year, 20 more counselors were added for a total $7.2 million in spending.

But that covers less than a third of the district’s 181 secondary schools, where discipline problems are the most acute.

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Sylvester Wiley, an L.A. Unified police officer for 32 years, said schools are increasingly calling police to handle disruptive students. “Now that they can’t suspend, schools want to have officers handle things, but we constantly tell them we can’t do this,” he said. “Willful defiance is not a crime.”

At Los Angeles Academy Middle School in South L.A., teachers have asked for an after-school detention program, but one has not yet been established. They say they are overwhelmed by what they consider ineffective responses to students who push, threaten and curse them. The stress over discipline prompted two teachers to take leaves of absence in the last two months.

“My teachers are at their breaking point,” Art Lopez, the school’s union representative, wrote to union official Colleen Schwab in a letter obtained by The Times. “Everyone working here is highly aware of how the lack of consequences has affected the site. Teachers with a high number of students with discipline issues are walking a fine line between extreme stress and a emotional meltdown.”

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Michael Lam, an eighth-grade math teacher, said he has seen an increase in student belligerence under new discipline policies.

“Where is the justice for the students who want to learn?” he said, speaking at a recent forum held as part of the process to select the next superintendent of schools. “I’m afraid our standards are getting lower and lower.”

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