By Sravya Tadepalli
“School Was No Longer Trying to Support Me, but Was Against Me”
Aspen Cotterell, a student at Cheldelin Middle School, was rushing to get to health class, half-walking and half-sprinting in order to get there on time. The gym teacher stood outside the door, watching as Cotterell struggled down the hall. The bell started to ring, and Cotterell got to the door right as the bell ended.
“Sorry, detention,” the teacher said, walking inside.
From 2008 to 2010, Cheldelin Middle School implemented a policy known as Option Two, whereby any incident of tardiness or unpreparedness would result in automatic lunch detention. Cotterell, now a senior at Oregon State University, estimates that she probably received five to seven detentions per year, all for being unprepared, late, or running in the hall trying not to be late.
“I went from getting zero detentions to all of a sudden getting a ton,” she said. “And it made me terrified of being late to school, to where even in college, if I’m five minutes late, my first instinct is to skip,” Cotterell said. “There have been a few times where I’ve skipped because the anxiety got too big.”
Cotterell has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and she believes that she was disproportionately affected by Option Two because her diagnosis makes it difficult for her to keep track of time. The repeated detentions she received for her lateness fundamentally changed her attitudes about school.
“It was the first time I felt that the school was no longer trying to support me, but was against me,” Cotterell said.
New Trends in School Discipline
In the 1990s and early 2000s, rising school violence led to schools across the country putting in place “zero-tolerance” policies, increasing their use of out-of-school suspensions and other punitive methods to punish students who displayed undesirable behavior. Suspension rates rose from the 1970s until 2013, but have fell significantly from 2013 to 2016, largely as a result of growing awareness of the racial disparities in discipline rates and the school-to-prison pipeline. Research showed that exclusionary means of discipline such as suspensions and expulsions were disproportionately used on students of color and students with disabilities, and such tactics kept students from the classroom and were ineffective in changing behavior.
Since 2011, when Cotterell left Cheldelin, new methods of addressing student discipline have been introduced to middle schools in the Corvallis School District to address minor infractions such as tardiness, unpreparedness, and misbehavior—infractions that would previously result in lunch detentions. These new methods are largely inspired by research showing the successful outcomes of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and restorative justice programs that offer alternative ways of addressing undesirable student behavior. Data from the Oregon Department of Education shows that in accordance with the District’s change to PBIS methods, the number of students receiving out-of-school suspensions in the Corvallis School District has dropped 61 percent between the 2007-08 and 2017-18 school years.
Rather than punishment, PBIS encourages teachers to identify the root causes behind why students are acting the way they are acting and address the causes in a positive way, such as collaborative problem solving. Rather than punishment, restorative justice aims to allow students to alleviate harms they have caused. For example, a student who stuck chewing gum under a desk might be asked to help clean it up.
The impact of school detention has not been quantitatively analyzed in the same way that suspensions and expulsions have. One study from the United Kingdom found that detention was generally ineffective and created resentment, negatively affecting relationships between students and teachers. Other studies have shown more generally that punitive approaches to discipline are not useful for changing behavior and can disengage students.
Interviews with former and current principals of middle schools in the Corvallis School District show how school discipline in Corvallis has evolved.
From Punitive Approaches to PBIS
The year was 2008, and it was Lisa Harlan’s first year as principal of Cheldelin Middle School and Tin Kha’s first year as assistant principal, and within months of the semester starting, they were confronted with a pervasive problem: persistent tardiness.
At the time, Cheldelin had a policy that would allot students lunch detention for every three times they were tardy or unprepared for class. But in 2008, the school decided to institute a policy that was commonly referred to as Option Two. The policy mandated that if a student was tardy or unprepared for class once, the infraction would result in an automatic detention. The policy was named Option Two to frame it as a matter of choice. Option One was to come to class on time and prepared for class. Option Two was to be late or unprepared and receive noon detention as a consequence.
“We wanted to motivate students to get to Option One, class, and within probably days of instituting it, students realized, OK, I can’t goof around anymore, I need to get to class,” Kha said. “Because for any student who was responsible, there really wasn’t any issues.”
After Option Two was instituted, data collected by the school’s detention supervisor showed that there were fewer incidents of tardiness and fewer detentions given out.
However, Harlan believes that the data did not include hidden effects of the policy. Some students continued to get detention regularly, and Harlan worried that there were hidden costs that came with the policy — such as how students like Cotterell felt about school.
“One thing I know is important is how students see themselves in school,” Harlan said. ”Option Two was a very punitive way of changing behavior—a poor way of changing behavior. Behavior changes with other approaches.”
Research shows that risky decision making is often caused by a lack of development in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for making decisions and understanding consequences. Because adolescent frontal cortices are not fully developed, their executive functioning is not as strong as that of adults. PBIS is partially based on the understanding that adolescent reasoning abilities are different from those of adults.
New research on PBIS helped Cheldelin design new solutions to address behavioral issues. Later on during Harlan’s tenure, after Kha left his position as assistant principal, a team of teachers and administrators began a new effort to disaggregate behavioral data, identifying problems that seemed to be recurring and students they were concerned about and figuring out ways they could address problems on an individual basis.
One spring, referrals during outdoor recess spiked considerably. The behavioral team decided that a lack of sports equipment available for students to use was causing bored students to find undesirable ways of amusing themselves. They addressed the problem by purchasing more equipment for students.
When Eric Beasley first came to work as the principal of Linus Pauling Middle School, the school used to have a ladder of consequences. Students who committed certain offenses would automatically be put on a certain level of the ladder based on the action that was committed, and reaching certain levels could lead to automatic in-school or out-of-school suspensions. Students were also often getting sent home for being disrespectful or defiant. Beasley aimed to change this system of discipline during his tenure. Figuring out how to work with adolescents facing significant stressors in their home lives was part of this work.
“When students are in middle school, their prefrontal cortexes are not fully developed,” said Beasley. “Trying to become more trauma-informed and taking approaches with kids that were mindful to their chronic stress was something that me and the counseling team wanted to work on.”
Beasley became a proponent of restorative justice, an approach to discipline that aims to repair harm by determining natural consequences for particular actions.
Not everyone has been on board with the new systems of discipline. Beasley faced some pushback from teachers who were concerned about moving away from automatic consequences. Jeff Brew, principal of Cheldelin from 2012 to 2016, recalls similar concerns.
“If a kid has a negative impact on your class as a teacher, you want something done about it,” said Brew. “And if the administrator takes a softer approach, it can feel like you’re not supported.”
Tin Kha, who currently teaches 6th Grade at Lenox Elementary School in Hillsboro, stands by Option Two as a policy.
“We had a major decrease in student behaviors [tardiness/unpreparedness], and we saw that students immediately started choosing Option One,” Kha said. “It achieved our purpose of safer hallways and increasing student learning time in the classroom.”
While the disciplinary systems used in Corvallis middle schools still have issues--students of color are still more likely to receive exclusionary disciplinary action than white students, for instance--Cheldelin’s detention policies have changed considerably in the last decade. Now, three tardies or incidents of unpreparedness result in a student receiving one break detention (a shorter detention) and six incidents of tardies or unpreparedness result in a student receiving a lunchtime detention (a longer detention), a more relaxed policy than what formerly existed.
Cheldelin staff have also enacted policies to make it easier for students to get to class on time. Current Principal Darren Bland says that a switch from a 4-minute passing time to a 5-minute passing time has helped improve tardies—not because the extra time was needed, but because students have an easier time conceptualizing time in 5-minute increments. Bland is also thinking about introducing a “1-minute” bell at Cheldelin, alerting students when there is only 1 minute left to get to class. During his tenure as assistant principal at Linus Pauling, the school played music during the 1-minute period, which Bland hopes to introduce at Cheldelin.
Collaborative problem solving has also been used as a means of addressing undesirable student behavior. Referrals concerning low-level disruptive behavior generally do not result in consequences—rather, students check in with behavioral staff. For misbehavior that is more serious or repetitive, parents are called in. Bland says that the method does not work for everybody, but it does work for students who are open to the process.
“At the end of the day, the rules are top-down, but how we problem solve to help students improve on their behavior needs to be more of a collaborative effort, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do in our district,” Beasley said.