Giving young offenders a second chance means system-wide reform

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Early in my time as superintendent in New London, staff at one of our schools found a young teen nearly unconscious from a substance overdose, an empty bottle next to him.  He had tried to commit suicide.

Technically he should have been suspended and then expelled for a series of violations of district policies.  But his situation was stunning for several reasons.  He was so young and he chose to try to kill himself.  He could have chosen to do the same away from school.

Then I read his cumulative folder.

Since elementary school he had had numerous behavior problems.  There were recommendations for medication and continuing psychiatric therapy… neither of which had occurred.  We later learned that in addition to multiple years of sexual abuse, he had witnessed two years of  severe violence against his mother.  Now he was living with a medically fragile relative.

I had to lobby for 12 months through the state’s juvenile court and social work system to get this child placed at a residential program out of state, which he finally was.   This child’s needs had not been met in our schools or in any of the support systems that should have helped him much, much earlier.

I knew that we had to change how we were addressing expulsions and suspensions.

In June, 2015, Reclaiming Futures talked about the importance of addressing the needs of students experiencing complex traumas.  Reclaiming Futures is an organization that has created a model for intervening in the juvenile justice system to enable communities to help teens overcome drugs, alcohol and crime.

Traumatic events are severe and pervasive such as abuse and neglect.   In particular the article discusses Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) and the lawsuit filed against the Compton, Calif., school district for allegedly “not responding to children’s learning needs and mental health needs specifically related to complex trauma.”  The lawsuit is based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Failure to take appropriate action not only leaves children vulnerable, but also leaves school districts vulnerable for failure to institute interventions to help children.

Simply out of my desire to get help for our children, I took several actions in 2009-2010 to change the way we were dealing with the children already in line for expulsions. Most frequently recommendations were for expulsions for felonious levels of violence in fights, drug and weapons possession.  Some were about continuous bullying.  The primary change was prior to approving any recommendation for expulsion, I asked for copies of the students’ discipline record and their cumulative folder and read the entire record to help identify the root causes of the child’s acting out and to determine when these behaviors began.

The cumulative folder is a record of a student’s progress from the time he or she entered school.  While there is variation across school districts, in most the folder includes academic achievement, attendance, requisite physicals and immunizations, referrals for support services like counseling or social work, referrals for special or exceptional needs (the details of which are kept in separate files), and in some cases notations of intensive interventions like full time health or psychiatric care or detention center education.

Second, I worked with the director of student services to ensure that students were currently receiving the services to which they were entitled.

We discussed every proposed expulsion.  The cases were often upsetting and sad to read.  One student was recommended for expulsion for repeated bullying.  While meeting with the young man’s parents, we learned that he had lost a grandparent two years before with whom he was extremely close and about which he was very depressed.   In fact he wore a tattoo in her memory.

Given the seriousness of his bullying and intimidation offenses, we had no choice but to expel him.  Tragically, this young man was a primary perpetrator in a murder and is now serving a very long sentence in prison. We will never know what would have happened had his depression been treated.

Third, I asked the school psychologists to interview each child recommended for expulsion to more deeply understand what had gone wrong or was currently going wrong in a child’s life.

A continuing pattern emerged in nearly every one of the 50-plus expulsion referrals that came across my desk over five years.  Most often between second and sixth grade, some later, students changed dramatically.  Their academic achievement and behavior suddenly changed from being happy, and energetic and doing well in school to acting out, becoming defiant, angry, refusing to follow rules and failing academically.

In some cases the academic and behavior changes were directly connected to poor reading skills.  In most cases, the changes were distinctively related to personal and family traumas.   Among these traumas were divorce, the death of a sibling, parent or grandparent, frequent movement from one state to another and changes in guardianship, physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, parental or student substance abuse and homelessness, among others.

A student was stopped one day in school because students had said she was carrying a knife, and she was.  She was suspended and referred for expulsion, as school policies required.

Per my practice, I asked the school psychologist to talk with her and find out what was happening in her life.   The psychologist reported that the student was extremely depressed.  Her mother had died within the prior three years and had father had just learned that he was terminally ill from his work as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The girl’s purpose in bringing the knife to school was to cut herself, not anyone else.  While we were required to move her through the expulsion hearing process, based on her conversation with the psychologist, the youngster was placed on a suicide watch with counseling and social work staff.  It was arranged for her to continue her school work, and she was required to attend counseling and commit to no further violations of school rules.

A fourth change I made was to create an intervention group to identify and address the needs of students who were continuously being suspended and at risk for expulsion.  This group met every two weeks in my office and consisted of principals, school behavior specialists, school resource officers, parole and probation staff, the senior assistant district attorney focusing on juveniles, and representatives of the state’s child and family agency.

We discussed specific students and as a group determined interventions to implement immediately in all of our respective positions.  For example, we convened the parents and students who were in loosely organized neighborhood gangs and police, probation, the judge, and principals outlined the behaviors that were unacceptable (i.e. threats, bullying, throwing gang signs and wearing colors) and what would be the immediate consequences for continuing to act out.

The parents, near the end of the meeting, said that “This is on us; we parents must act to save our kids.”  Arrests for these gang related behaviors in schools were greatly reduced.

In addition to the immediate steps taken to deal with students already in the suspension/expulsion pipeline, we instituted evidence–based alternative discipline programs in the high school and middle school to allow us to intervene in school with students who were acting out and attempt to identify root causes of their inappropriate behaviors, change those behaviors, and get them back into regular school.

And for the long term, we needed to identify and get help for children exhibiting signs and symptoms of trauma and mental health disorders as early as possible.  We needed to start with changing a mindset among some school staff members.

And that is: there are no “good” and “bad” children.  Such labels are destructive to students and parents.  How do these labels help children, especially in dealing with inappropriate behavior?  What it does do is create children who are often labeled as “throw-aways,” because “after all what can you do with a bad kid?”  We focused on stopping the labeling of kids and started to deal with their behavior.

Unacceptable behavior is unacceptable behavior.  We made it clear that bullying, threats and intimidation toward students or adults were unacceptable.  But unacceptable behaviors are also signs and symptoms of a child who is troubled.

Managing the behavior of children means adults need to know the best, evidenced- based practices for doing so.  As well, adults need training on identifying signs and symptoms of trauma induced behavior, and mental health disorders.  We need more funding and staff to accomplish this if we really want to reduce expulsions and suspensions.

So what would we do with that funding?

An excellent model is available in Connecticut called school based health clinics. These clinics are available in all public schools in New London in cooperation with the Child and Family Agency of SECT.   There is a specially trained nurse available in each clinic through which students can get access to physical and mental health care.

Interestingly most students come in just to talk.

In New London and in many communities across Connecticut there is a crisis level shortage of medical, psychological, psychiatric, drug treatment and day and residential therapeutic services for students.  Many parents are unaware of or cannot afford the services their children need.   In many cases mental and physical health needs have been clearly identified in schools and yet the services cannot be found in the community, especially long term and follow-up care.

It is absolutely imperative that we look below the surface.  We must get beyond the labels of “good” and “bad” children. We have to know more about who the students are and how they have come to act the way they do.   In no way should this be taken to mean that I or we should accept unacceptable or violent behavior in schools.  It does mean that we need to know more about how we can better serve young people and intervene with appropriate and necessary support services as early as possible.

Nicholas A. Fischer is a former superintendent of the New London Public Schools.

 

 

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