By Alan Burns
A recent study by members of Mississippi KIDS COUNT and the Mississippi Department of Education looked at disciplinary policies in Mississippi and surveyed public school administrators and teachers to better understand how these policies are used and their effectiveness.
Most children would consider days away from school as a welcome vacation, but what about the children who are taken out of the classroom due to exclusionary discipline policies? According to the U.S. Department of Education, one out of every seven students in American public schools in 2011 experienced exclusionary discipline such as in-school suspension (ISS), out-of-school suspension (OSS), or expulsion.
Recent efforts by Mississippi KIDS COUNT, a project of the Family and Children Research Unit (FCRU) at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC), sought a better understanding of how disciplinary policies are being used in the state’s public schools. The team looked at discipline policy data and surveyed administrators and teachers from Mississippi public schools on the policies’ use, effectiveness, and suggestions for alternative strategies.
The report, officially titled “Balancing Act: Mississippi Administrators and Teachers Weigh in on Discipline Policies in Schools,” followed a series of Mississippi KIDS COUNT studies of chronic absenteeism, defined as missing ten percent or more of the academic year. All have been conducted through support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Following the Data” policy grants.
“Chronic absence involves un-excused absences and excused absences, but it also takes suspensions into account. When kids are suspended, either in ISS or OSS, they are not in the classroom. They are missing valuable instruction time, which can impede academic success. It’s an issue of concern to the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE),” said Anne Buffington, project director.
Toni Kersh, Director of the Office of Compulsory School Attendance Enforcement at MDE, has worked with Buffington, and Ben Walker, a Research Associate in the FCRU on the chronic absence study for the last five years. She stated that the initial work took a lot of effort to properly explain due to the complicated nature of how chronic absence is calculated.
“It took everyone a while to realize that the issue we were dealing with was more than just truancy, or unexcused absences. We had to get everyone on the same page and that meant getting them to understand that the chronic absenteeism rates are comprised of suspensions, excused absences and unexcused absences,” she said.
Kersh recounted that after meeting with the KIDS COUNT team from their work on chronic absenteeism, she noticed something of concern in the data.
“After I met with the KIDS COUNT team in 2014, there was a bit of data that stood out to me,” Kersh continued. “The number of kindergartners that were chronically absent in our state was very high. The team went back and started unpacking that data, and they found that it was primarily due to suspension.”
According to Buffington, this prompted the research team to move from traditional chronic absence studies to discipline policies, suspension in particular.
There are five main types of discipline practices used in the state that the research looked at: suspension (which includes both ISS and OSS), detention, corporal punishment, positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), and restorative justice. While these are the main methods of disciplinary action used in the state, not all are practiced in each district or county, with some counties having removed corporal punishment altogether. As of 2018, there are 16 districts that prohibit corporal punishment in the state.
The Mississippi KIDS COUNT team defines each of the discipline practices in their report. Suspension removes a student from the regular classroom for a specified time period, either in-school or out-of-school, depending on the severity of the infraction; detention requires a student to report to a designated area during otherwise free time; corporal punishment involves physically administering discipline, usually by means of spanking or hitting; Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) provides discipline plans and rewards for good behavior; and restorative justice seeks to balance consequences with mending the relationship between the student and school community after an infraction.
The data collection segment was broken into a web-based survey and qualitative telephone interviews. The team also had access to data from MDE that allowed them to know the usage rate of the discipline policies, primarily corporal punishment.
The web-based survey instrument, designed by the project team, was user-friendly with 28 questions based on the administrators’ beliefs and practices regarding suspension and other disciplinary actions. Prior to delivery, the survey was approved by MDE.
“We wanted to find out very basic stuff about discipline strategies among teachers and administrators,” said Walker. “A lot of our policy work begins that way, finding answers to very basic questions: what do they think about suspension, what are the barriers to using alternative strategies, and what are the principals doing in their districts? That information just simply isn’t available to us, this allowed us to establish a baseline.”
The team initially delivered the survey to 888 principals around the state, with instructions inside that asked them to forward it on to their teachers and staff members. The survey had a total of 433 responses, almost half of the responses identifying as teachers.
In the follow-up piece, team members Anne Buffington and Lisa Long interviewed six school administrators via telephone. Their qualitative answers and quotes were used throughout the report to reflect their views on the disciplinary practices.
“We spoke to administrators around the state, some who are challenged by high suspension rates in their districts and others who have been successful in bringing those rates down. Their feedback was very important; you could see that in the quotes that we used in the report,” said Buffington.
The final report was compiled using both the data gathered from MDE and the web-based survey results. General findings showed that schools in the state have varying policies and uses of discipline strategies. Over three-quarters of all schools indicated that they used ISS, while over 93% indicated that they used OSS in their settings; however, only half of the schools reported using detention. They also found that while over 86% use a form of positive behavior intervention and support (PBIS), around 60% still use corporal punishment as an active policy.
Regarding suspension data, a majority (97%) of the survey respondents indicated that their schools tracked suspension data, some even tracking by gender, race, grade, disability, and infractions. Those who were interviewed stated that tracking this data helped them identify causes of the behavior, which would help future instances.
One of the most pressing findings was Mississippi’s use of out-of-school suspension. With at least 93% of the principals reporting that they used OSS, previous data collection showed that 8% of Mississippi’s public-school students received OSS in the 2013-2014 school year, compared to the national average of only 6%. African American students received OSS more than three times the rate of any other race.
“This allowed us to see where suspensions come in as a contributor to absence and attendance issues,” Walker explained. “Teacher and administrators may not always make the connection that when a student gets suspended from school, they are missing instructional time. And even if they get ISS, the instructional time they receive is just not the same quality as in a classroom.”
Currently, Mississippi is just one of 19 states that allow the use of corporal punishment in public schools. While 16 districts have gotten rid of the practice, 135 districts (90%) still allow it to be used as a discipline strategy. In just 100 of those districts in the 2016-2017 school year, there were almost 28,000 instances of corporal punishment. At least 15,000 public school students received corporal punishment at least once during that same year. The lowest rate of use in the state was Rankin County at just 0.57% of students receiving the punishment one or more times, while the highest rate was in West Jasper Consolidated at 34%.
When asked about the effectiveness of the different policies, none of the respondents was able to identify any specific strategy as “highly effective.” However, there was a clear distinction in the beliefs of administrators versus teachers, with administrators believing PBIS and suspension as more effective, in that order, than their teachers and staff.
“What we really saw in the data was that teachers were more in favor of punitive strategies, whereas principals were more inclined to support PBIS, which is a more long-term strategy. That method takes a lot of time, relationship building, and effort, but it is a more positive strategy,” said Walker.
“When you talk about PBIS, you should be looking at the positives with children, not focusing on the negatives. You don’t overlook the negatives, but you intervene in an effort to change them,” Kersh stated.
One of the common solutions presented by all respondents was that increased parental involvement was a key to improving behavior problems. They cited parental accountability as a necessary component to changing the landscape. It is also important to note that school personnel were overall in favor of using alternative strategies such as community service (66%) and restorative justice (50%).
For MDE, the report is allowing them a chance to move forward in the state and begin tackling the suspension gap along with chronic absences.
“We’ve had a call to action,” said Kersh. “Districts now are asking what can our team do and how can we help them use their information? It’s like when a first storm hits, we may not know what to do, but when the next ones come, we knew what to do and we knew how to prepare. We’re jumping into action, and we’re preparing for what will happen.”
The Mississippi KIDS COUNT team included policy considerations in the report which they hope will help policy makers and educators make informed decisions in the future.
“For me, the message is for districts going forward to carefully track their suspension data,” Walker explained. “We had 97% say that they tracked it in some form, but now you need to use that and understand what disparities may exist in their district and how you can correct them.”
Buffington sees the need for parent, teacher, and community involvement when districts are designing discipline plans and policies.
“The districts set their own discipline policies. I believe parents have a role too. If districts can develop programs that increase parental involvement and help get the word out to parents that we’re all in this together, then we are creating stronger districts. Allowing parents, teachers, and students to have a role in helping developing policy gives them a voice in the decision-making process,” Buffington said.
MDE official launched a chronic absence task force in August, which Buffington was asked to join. Buffington explained that she believes the team has really changed the mindset on chronic absence in the state, and it’s going to benefit everyone long-term.
“The goal is for the task force to drive the work of the agency,” Kersh said. “This task force is looking at why kids may be absent and developing strategies that would be helpful to districts. This is a working task force that will develop a plan of action and resources to get everyone moving in the right direction.”
Kersh also sees MDE’s top-down approach as one of the benefits of the way they are tackling this problem.
“We have to have the school board and superintendents on board if it’s going to work. The partnership we have with KIDS COUNT and other entities, is because Dr. Wright is at the forefront leading the charge. It’s going to benefit not only the school districts, but the communities and businesses as well. If we have kids performing better, we all benefit from their success and together we will make strides as a state. The message has to come from the top down,” she said.
“If our major goal is to get kids across the stage, we should stop setting up hurdles in front of them. If they have to jump this hurdle, then the next one, and another, they’re going to get tired. We as adults even get tired from life’s hurdles, so we can’t expect these adolescents to jump as many or more hurdles than we do, and expect them to keep going,” Kersh concluded.
For more information on Mississippi KIDS COUNT, visit kidscount.ssrc.msstate.edu.