Changes made to MSD Student Code of Conduct

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Milford School District has updated their discipline policies to include restorative practices

After a lengthy discussion, changes were approved to the Milford School District Student Code of Conduct at a recent meeting. Much of the conversation surrounded the use of restorative practices as part of the discipline policy and whether they were effective in changing student behavior.

“Restorative practices are deliberate and intentional tools and strategies that facilitate the building of healthy relationships,” the policy reads for both elementary and secondary schools. “When individuals live in healthy relationships with others, there is abundant personal growth, capacity for character building and high-level achievement. We believe it is important for all students and staff to build positive relationships with one another, as this produces the best academic, social and emotional outcomes.”

The policy continued that when harm occurs in the community, healing is a process essential to restoring healthy relationships with the understanding that harm-doers should be held accountable for and take an active role in repairing harm. Conflict is resolved through honest dialogue and collaborative problem-solving, while addressing the root cause and the needs of those impacted.

“Following a harm, staff shall work with the student and others involved to determine how to repair the harm caused and provide restitution whenever possible,” the policy continued. “To the extent possible, consequences will be given that match the function of the infraction. For example, if an infraction involved the destruction of school property, a consequence including a measure to restore the damage shall be considered for inclusion. Similarly, if an infraction involved harm to a social relationship, a consequence including a measure to restore the relationship, a loss of a social privilege, and/or another activity that strengthens a pro social skill may be considered.”

Board members Dr. Adam Brownstein and Matthew Bucher were concerned about the changes to the policy after researching the practices following a previous board meeting.

“I’m pleased with the changes made by Dr. Peel. Great job as you got a lot of questions at the last meeting. I looked at the changes that were made and they needed to be made,” Bucher said. “The whole issue of restorative practices, I am at odds with based on my research. Several studies done in different school districts and states, there’s a major one done in Maine by the Department Health and Human Services and another one done in Pittsburgh Public Schools by the Division of Child and Educational Issues. And what they found was, by and large, restorative practices are a mixed bag. It takes a tremendous amount of student buy in as well as by faculty, by administrative to make them work,”

Bucher continued that there were two areas named in the study that required “massive funding” and additional employees in order to make restorative practices successful. He pointed out that if the main objective was to lower out of school suspensions (OSS), the practices were somewhat successful based on the studies, but that the other side of it was that there was lower teacher satisfaction.

“Oftentimes, lower student perception of the teachers’ control of the classroom, and even the diverse negative consequences lower middle school student math scores,” Bucher said. “I do not plan to endorse it with the yes vote. The wording I would like to have seen was voluntary rather than encouraged or recommended, but nonetheless, I believe it is by and large a quality product and I thank you for making the changes from last time.”

Brownstein echoed the sentiments of Bucher, explaining that he was a “science guy.”

“I too did a deep dive over the last 30 days because I wanted to see for myself sort of what the research actually shows. I am a science guy. I stood in front of this board a couple of months ago and made some claims about COVID that everybody laughed at. Some of them might come true, but we’ll leave that there,” Brownstein said. “So, what I was able to find is that there had been 67 studies done on restorative practices in the last 10 years. There have been no studies in the last two years that I’m aware of mostly because of COVID. That makes sense. Out of those 67 studies just four implemented even basic research design, and only one at the standards for scientific research. So, let’s talk about the one that was probably the best which is Pittsburgh study by the group that you mentioned. That was pretty good study of 44 different buildings. They had 22 treatments. 22 controls. Sounds like a pretty good number of people. But the results of that study were mixed. Suspension rates did decline after two years with the program, which was impressive, but most importantly to me as a board member, the incidence of violence weapons and arrests were all unchanged. So the heavy hitters still were heavy hitters.”

Brownstein continued by stating that academic outcomes in the schools studied did not improve and actually worsened at the middle school level. He also found that the demographic whose academic scores dropped the most were African American students in the study. In his opinion, restorative practices could target a minority group, something he was not comfortable with.

“I have a problem implementing a policy that is going to target a minority in my district directly especially because I’m trying to help everybody here,” Brownstein said. “I too have a lot of concerns about the way that we’re trying to implement this. This sounds like an enormous undertaking that requires a lot of infrastructure for it to work effectively. So, to that end, I am proposing a solution and not just a criticism. So, there’s a high school in Virginia. And I’m not going to pronounce the name correctly, but it’s Algonquin High School in Virginia. They took a little bit of a different bent on this. What they did is they started with the teachers and they went out to the teachers and they said who believes in this? They found a handful and then got some of the mental health providers on board and they started a pilot program and in that pilot program, they were able to reduce suspensions without compromising academics and the other teachers in the district.”

After a year or two, Brownstein stated, more teachers became involved in the new discipline practices, allowing the teachers who had successfully implemented it to share their tips with other teachers. They grew the use of the practice over several years rather than try to implement it districtwide.

Another concern expressed by the board was that if the only goal was to lower suspensions, it may be beneficial to look at the larger picture, including differences in grade levels. It was pointed out that it seemed the new policies were more effective at the elementary school level which meant targeting younger children with the changes may lead to better acceptance at the middle school level. It was stated that younger children still view adults as authority figures but when they reach middle school age, children believe adults are wrong about everything. Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, explained that the district began with a small pilot group the year before under the direction of Dr. Brittany Hazzard, Supervisor of Equity and Support Services.

“So we did start small. And if you look at it here, this is just another resource for us that’s supposed to be proactive, preventative,” Dickerson said “ Good classroom management strategies is good social emotional learning support. And then also at the end of the day, we have students who make mistakes, it still talks about here that they’re going to have the consequences. But how do we help get have those students be able to transition either back into the classroom without reoccurring problem, or making sure they’re successful? And not repeating what they’ve done but also being able to get along as well with others that they may have had conflict with. So it really goes back a little bit to conflict management and good classroom management strategies.”

Hazzard explained that the district did involve students when they created the adjusted policies. She explained that restorative practices simply meant that they were going to support their students and restore any harm that had come to them. This would also allow for better relationship building between teachers and students as well as between students themselves, allowing students who committed infractions to remain in the classroom which is the overall goal. The practice, though still a reactive approach, also includes prevention, intervention and support. Even having a teacher greet students as they walk into class is part of the restorative practice, Hazzard explained.

“And to give credit to our teachers who put in countless amount of hours and time with our students, this is not a new approach. These approaches are implemented within classrooms. And I will say that we all are very proud of our teachers and what they have done to build relationships with our students and families. The continuum from informal to formal, we see it every day. A student may have an incident in the classroom. For them specifically going down to PCC for discipline, that’s taking them outside of the class and takes away time from their academic learning. They actually get an opportunity to utilize some sort of restorative approach this does not necessarily mean a restorative circle, because again, there are informal and formal on this continuum of restorative practices. The informal approaches include things such as classroom management skills, so in that time, you will find your teacher probably doing what he or she normally does in their classroom such as engaging, encouraging the student, prompting the student to be encouraged or welcomed from his or her peers so they can get back into learning and classroom engagement as well as they possibly can. So that is an example of the implementation of restorative practices. And again, I am very proud of our teachers because these are things that they have been doing before the terminology in itself. Sometimes we can get caught up on that because the root word is restorative. We often think that it is after the fact, but so much is done on the preventative side.”

Dickerson explained that the most common phrase he heard last year as students returned to in-class learning after the pandemic was how teachers and administrators could support the students so they could seamlessly return to academics in the classroom. He stated that teachers constantly searched for proactive ways to manage students before they made a decision to act inappropriately. When a student did choose to act inappropriately, teachers then looked for ways to acclimate them back into the classroom easily.

“If we’re gonna focus on training our teachers, which is absolutely going to be a requirement for this, they cannot receive training in other areas, right. There’s a limited number of hours to train. I still maintain that if we’re going to take critical course of training, I need to see that there is obvious and pervasive evidence that that time will be well spent,” Brownstein said. “And for me, personally, I would need to see clinical data that this is not just theory, because that’s what it seems to me. Just because something looks good here does not mean that in the real world, it actually works and because I can’t find data, to prove to me uncategorically that this is a good idea for me to use teacher inservice days and focus on something that really appears to be at best a wash, you’re kind of getting less suspension, maybe a little bit on the middle school side, but violence and weapons aren’t really changing. It seems at best a wash and then we’re going to invest a lot of time and a lot of resources and frankly a lot of money, which I personally think are better spent in other ways. So, I’m making a plea to my other board members to keep in mind that there is always an ancillary cost to every action and that cost is claimed that he thinks that you are for going in an attempt to implement a policy. Just a comment.”

Board member Jean Wylie, who spent several decades as a teacher and principal, asked what kind of plan Brownstein had to manage discipline in the schools.

“What is your plan? What’s your plan to stop? Supposedly the students that we know that have problems showing based on mental health. We’re all offering social help. We’re offering parent help; we’re offering the help. So what else do you expect? I mean, it also says that there are consequences for the behaviors and especially for certain behaviors, and especially for some of the serious behaviors as well. It’s not that we’re overlooking behaviors,” Wylie said. “The other thing is that we as a community, as a school, we’re always pushing down to the elementary, what the elementary can do, but then that can change when they go back to the middle school. So if we have this in place, and the fact that they know these things are in place, I feel that they know the consequences.”

Wylie continued, stating that if consequences were different at the elementary level, students understood that did not mean there were no rules when they reached middle or high school.

“Because sometimes I understand the capacity of the schools and I understand what the principals and the teachers and everybody’s going through, but we’ve also got to set in place, too, for the students to be able to know that what they received at the elementary level is also going to proceed with them in the middle and high school and they need that that stability. They need to know we are looking at how we can make students better. We’re looking at making students a participant of the community. We’re trying to help students to understand that when they leave the high school that there are certain things that they’re going to face. Okay, so it as part of their behavior. So that’s something that we need to learn how to instill in them.”

Brownstein stated that he “100 percent agreed” with Wylie that there did need to be a plan, but he was concerned about implementing policies without specific scientific evidence to support that plan. He felt the board could take a step back and look for something else. Hazzard was asked to provide details on what the basis was from moving to zero tolerance to the current policy.

“When you’re looking at dynamics and practices, the ultimate goal is to be able to restore harm to build the relationships as we discussed. Miss Wiley made some key points there even as she shared it out. And then as I said earlier, the goal is to ensure that all of our students are educated,” Hazzard said. “Outside of those components, when you think about why we show up here, that is our goal and we have seen so much proof. There is research that supports our teachers utilizing restorative practices, our discipline dean’s and not just here, of course, but statewide as well as nationwide using restorative practices. And we do see turnaround and growth not just in regard to being in the building but also our climate, our buildings, the climate in our building improves as well.”

Dickerson stated that the one thing he heard from teachers as children returned to classroom learning from the pandemic was how to build positive relationships with the students, some of which had never been in a classroom.

“This just provides more tools for them to be able to do that in the classroom, to provide those healthy relationships here, positive ones, making sure students feel valued and sense of belonging. And also, we’re hoping that’s going to be proactive here. And obviously we’ll have to continue looking at our data, like Dr. Brownstein has stated. Mr. Bucher, you’ve mentioned as well, as we go forward,” Dickerson said. “But it really is because we feel preventative measures have really established as healthy relationships as positive relationships with the teacher with the class, which I think are administered over a long period of time, but even this past year, that was really one of the critical things coming back in from the pandemic that we had that culture, we had positive climates in our classroom, positive relationships with students welcoming back that sense of belonging, but it’s also a part of this here again, as students do have infractions, not only do they have the consequences, but can they learn from them? as well? Some of this we’ve talked about, be honest with you, I’ve been in education almost 30 years, we’ve talked about this almost my entire time. Some things we’ve done really well in education, that kind of are mentioned here with our restorative practices. We want to do better with this as well but we’re really trying to help and support all students at the end of the day, also provided our staff, our staff here with more tools kind of in the toolbox to help support students as well.”

Dr. Jason Peel, Director of Human Resources and School Climate, explained that the new policy was not an overhaul. He stated it was a tool, one with 55 pages of guidance, for discipline violation consequences. He explained that the goal was to reduce the incidence of out-of-school suspension (OSS). The new legislation requires that OSS be reduced to 10 percent of the school population but does not eliminate it completely. There would still be infractions that would require OSS, especially at the middle and high school level. The other goal is to make discipline more consistent among teachers. Hazzard stated that before bringing the policy to the board, administration did talk to students to get their input in how discipline consequences could help them grow. She felt it was very encouraging to get that feedback in order to help students grow together with their peers and how restorative practices encourage that relationship.

“I see this like you said as a tool in the tool belt for the teachers. They didn’t really overhaul policy, where it’s completely restorative practice, all the way through. It’s like Dr. Peel said, it’s a 55-page document. And now they’ve added restorative practice as a tool in the teachers’ tool belt to ensure it’s there to get them to get the training for it,” Vezmar said. “I could see maybe the point you were talking about other schools; how did they implement it? Did they implement a full policy of restorative practice? Or was it like what we’re doing here? Was it just an addition to what we’re doing with policy that’s the part that I’m missing. I also did a lot of reading on it. So next I also saw the schools that that it didn’t work well. But I also saw many schools where it did work well.

Vezmar continued, stating that, overall, he found that making restorative practices work was going to come down to the people implementing the plan.

“And in my opinion, with our district staff, they can do it. So, I have to put my trust in them, knowing that it’s not a fully full rewrite, that it’s a supplement to our policy,” Vezmar continued. “And overall, I just think it’s good for the kids to have instead of being in trouble, the “oh, well, you know, 20 years ago that used to be a suspension, so it should still be a suspension” I think now it’s working with the teacher and the student to say, “hey, maybe it doesn’t have to be a suspension. Maybe we can talk through this and keep the kid in school for another day.”

Wylie pointed out that as the practice was implemented, staff would bring back data to the board about how well it was working to lower discipline incidences in the district. She reminded the board that she had experienced this firsthand as a teacher and a principal, students that just kept coming back and doing the same thing because they wanted to get OSS again. Wylie felt the goal should be to keep them in school as much as possible, so they learn to be productive adults. She also reminded the board that there were simply students that no type of discipline would be adequate for as some can be helped using simple corrections while others may require something like OSS.

Another question asked by the board was what would happen if a teacher was not comfortable using restorative practices, whether it was because of a lack of experience or training, especially newer teachers. The concern was that there could be a safety issue or even repercussions against the teacher if they did not implement these practices.

‘The thing that has happened with what’s here so far as we’ve had some of our schools, we’ve had leads within our schools now. So we have support right within our school. So, at the end of the day, whether it’s instructional strategies, whether it’s whatever management strategies, yes, we need to be able to offer support, and we do have a lot of expertise in all our buildings to provide support when we notice that,” Dickerson said. “You are right, financially for a brand new teacher coming in, there are a lot of different demands with the teaching profession, but we make sure they’re not overwhelmed by providing the support when they need us. So, we do have school leads to assist with that. Hopefully, our staff feels comfortable to go to administration or school leads if they are struggling with a particular area. But I will say that for so many years and we’re very fortunate about Milford School District, we have so many good staff members and so many good teachers across our buildings, who typically when we have PLCs, we have other meetings or just being there, somebody a mentor, we have good mentoring programs as well are there to support our new teachers coming in as well. But that is very important for us because every time we add something to a newer teacher, it does create more demands for somebody first coming into the profession, and that is something here I know with the mentoring program we have and other support systems that we need.”

The board voted four to two with one member abstaining to approve the new discipline policy for secondary schools. Bucher and Brownstein cast the no votes while Kris Thompson abstained.

When discussing the elementary discipline policy, there were questions about reflection time. Amory explained that reflection time often meant that a teacher would have a student complete a reflection sheet about their behavior which included ideas for how to change that behavior and correct it next time. Dickerson stated that this type of correction had been used in Milford for quite some time with success.

“I have one question and I only ask because I honestly don’t know in the accountability matrix, is that what you call it? There is hate crimes. And there is discriminatory behavior or speech. Now, this is an elementary school. I get that it pops up with the middle school and high school policy because they should know better, but one of the protected classes is the discrimination because of gender identity in the hate crime section and the discriminatory behavior or speech,” Bucher said. “My concern is and I think probably chances are very strong that you can alleviate that concern immediately. First graders, second graders, et cetera. They’ve got a biological male, a boy another student mis-genders the student in question and it is because that’s what they know. I mean, they’re not very old. They’re very young. They don’t know. They don’t know what we should know at our age. Is that a hate crime, is that discriminatory behavior of speech, because there’s pretty stiff penalties for that in the matrix.”

Peel explained that at the elementary level, this would not be a hate crime. What would fall under discriminatory practices would be like refusing to play with the child because of gender identity, but that it would not be a hate crime. In most cases at the elementary level, the child would be counseled about inclusion, regardless of the child’s gender. In order for it to be a hate crime, it would need to be an assault, harassment or theft because of the person’s race, gender identity or another protected class. In addition, for it to be a hate crime at the school level, the child would have to be arrested by the police which was highly unlikely in grades K-5.

The board voted 5-1 to approve the changes to the discipline code for grades K-5 with one member abstaining. Brownstein cast the only dissenting vote, stating that “based purely on anecdotal data,” he would vote no. Bucher abstained.

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