CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A new effort to make discipline fair and equal for students in all of Charleston County's public schools is frustrating some teachers and making others question if consequences for student misbehavior are anywhere near strict enough.
Charleston County Schools' new Progressive Discipline Plan was implemented last school year.
District leaders say it will take years to see the final impact which they believe will be an improvement.
The plan is currently evolving based on input from administrators and teachers.
The district's message to upset teachers is that they hear their concerns and ask them to hang in there through the changes.
Teachers say they are on the front lines of discipline and are worried about how to keep all students and staff safe from the kids who misbehave.
"Black students are suspended at a rate of six times that for white students," the report said. "Black students have the highest expulsion rate at the elementary and high school levels, while Hispanic students had the highest expulsion rate at the middle school level."
SATA showed students were being disciplined completely differently for the same behaviors.
"We can't go back to the old way because the old way was not working," said Kayla Goodwine, Director of the Department of Alternative Programs and Services for CCSD. "We realized we had a disproportionate amount of suspensions and expulsions based on where you attended school and, to be honest, what you looked like and what your zip code was."
"We have to have equity for students," Goodwine said.
That's why the implementation of a district-wide Progressive Discipline Plan (PDP) began.
The PDP is a document that is provided to principals and administrators to guide them about what consequences should be implemented for specific behavioral offenses.
Misbehavior is broken into tiers: Classroom and Teacher managed, Disorderly conduct, Disruptive Conduct, and Criminal Conduct.
These tiers are described in the Student Code of Conduct for Elementary and Middle/High School students.
Classroom and Teacher managed infractions in Elementary School include cheating, dress code violations, horseplay, inappropriate language, running and tardiness.
The possible consequences listed include verbal and written warnings, parent contact or conference, letters of apology, loss of privileges, detention, one day of in-school suspension or Saturday School.
Level 1 Disorderly conduct infractions in Elementary School include biting, pinching, spitting, cutting class, disrupting class, disrespect, obscene gestures and a phone violation. The possible consequences listed include parent contact, confiscation of items, detention, in-school suspension or Saturday School.
Level 2 Disruptive conduct infractions in Elementary School include fighting, using profanity, cheating, hitting, kicking, punching, indecent exposure, harassment, refusal to obey, possession of tobacco and vandalism.
The possible consequences listed include out-of-school suspension, school probation contract, loss of participation in school events, referral to the alternative school or referral to law enforcement.
Level 3 Criminal Conduct infractions in Elementary School include arson, aggravated assault, bomb threats, bullying, burglary, drug possession or distribution, and gang activity, and having weapons. The possible consequences listed include out-of-school suspension, referral to law enforcement, or referral for expulsion.
LINK TO ELEMENTARY CODE OF CONDUCT WHICH LISTS THESE EXAMPLES ON PP. 18-23
LINK TO MIDDLE/HIGH CODE OF CONDUCT WHICH LISTS THESE EXAMPLES on PP. 18-23
Some behavior such as cheating, biting, spitting are classified as higher level offenses in the Middle and High School Code of Conduct because students are expected to have learned proper behavior at an older age, said Jennifer Coker.
Coker is the Executive Director of Alternative Programs at CCSD.
She and Goodwine are working together with the team developing PDP.
Their department oversees a range of programs in prevention, positive behavior intervention and student discipline.
It sends out surveys to teachers to gauge the biggest issues, rate principals and evaluate the work of the school board.
In April 2017, the CTA's survey explored the Progressive Discipline Plan after its first year.
"Only 12 percent of CCSD teachers agree that the district empowers them to maintain order and discipline in their classrooms. Only 19 percent agree that the PDP promotes high expectations for student conduct," said a CTA report based on the survey.
CTA also gave teachers an opportunity to submit write-in responses about the challenges they've had with PDP and what they suggest for improvements.
There are about 3,100 full time CCSD teachers.
Around 600 of them answered all or parts of the survey.
It paints a picture of what some teachers are experiencing day-to-day.
Live 5's Carter Coyle looked through the more than 350 write-in responses from the CTA survey.
When asked about discipline issues that weren't being addressed appropriately by the PDP, some teachers gave scathing responses.
"They might say we have a school wide disciplinary plan but we don't. This place is chaos!" said one teacher.
In another response, someone wrote, "The PDP is a disaster. It handicaps teachers and administrators."
"The PDP is the WORST thing to happen to public education in my lifetime," wrote another teacher. "Students have realized that they can commit multiple infractions and barely receive a slap on the wrist, if that much. They are cursing at the teachers and other students, fighting, and receiving maybe an after school detention. It is AWFUL!!! We have several new teachers who are leaving this year, after fights over cell phones, cursing, because the students ended right back in class the next day."
The main teacher complaints claimed the PDP gave misbehaving students too many chances, was not strict enough, had coding issues, and was not well-taught to teachers.
When asked about their recommendations for improving PDP, teachers surveyed offered a variety of ideas including more training and support, more teacher involvement in PDP planning, separating offenders from other kids, stricter and quicker consequences, involving parents and providing more intervention and help for misbehaving kids.
Several teachers surveyed suggested completely scrapping the plan.
"GET RID OF THE PDP!" wrote one teacher in all caps. "The state of my school has rapidly deteriorated since the implementation of the PDP. Children are no longer in an environment where education is the most important thing going on. We are existing in an environment where the habitual offenders have hijacked the learning environment and are ruining it for everyone."
But the district says there's no going back.
"Any time you try to do something new across 87 schools and the communities, it's gonna have an impact," Coker said.
Goodwine and Coker agreed they never expected a perfect rollout of a new discipline plan.
"We know there's still frustrations, we know we still have some bumps in the road. But with any new project, it takes some time," said Goodwine. "All the research shows us that in the elementary schools, progress takes three to five years. In the high schools, it takes five to eight years."
"The first year with PDP in Charleston County, based on the teachers we talked to, it was very erratic. It very much depends on the principal teachers had," said Jody Stallings, president of CTA.
He said the execution of the plan was rocky for some and depended on the school.
Overall, he said teachers he's heard from believe a districtwide PDP is "a step in the right direction in terms of taking away some of that possible discrimination in the hands of administrators."
But the survey responses highlighted feelings that classroom behavior was much worse this year.
"I had a student shove me with a door and no consequence was given. The admin I spoke with told me that the student was 'talked' to," said one teacher response.
Stallings pointed back to school leadership.
"If the principal doesn't support PDP, and they don't support teachers in the classroom, behavior in that school is going to deteriorate. Sometimes to a point where's it's teachers who are verbally assaulted and physically assaulted and that's not good for teachers, not good for students."
West Ashely High School Senior Siara Spratt said behavioral disruptions such as fights are annoying to most students in the classroom.
"It really does distract a lot of us from getting our work done because it makes our attention go onto them, which I guess is what they want from us."
Siara spoke at a Superintendent's Listening session earlier this year.
While she said students like herself are not versed on the intricacies of the PDP, she knew something was "different" in school last year.
"Things just wasn't as strict as they used to be," Spratt said.
That's putting it mildly, according to accounts from a group of West Ashley High School teachers.
They did not want to be individually identified because they feared reprisal from the district.
They submitted the following statement to us:
"This is not a West Ashley High School issue," it said in part. "Administrators throughout the district have expressed frustration over the PDP, namely that students can commit multiple infractions before a significant consequence is issued. But due to the reassignment of twelve administrators and the chaos of that mess, administrators fear reprisal from the district office. Once this was understood by students, it spread and turmoil ensued at West Ashley."
Teachers tell us one reason discipline feels more lenient is because misbehavior in the PDP builds on the same offense.
If, for example, a student is caught cheating, skips class, and then uses profanity toward a teacher, the offenses are considered one strike in each of those misbehavior categories, not three strikes total that would lead to a stricter consequence.
A student would need to be caught cheating three times to build to a stricter consequence for that one specific behavior.
Coker said figuring out how to define a referral for consistent yet different types of misbehavior has been tricky for the team working on PDP.
"It's a difficult balance if you say, well, after a blanket 10 referrals, you are sent for expulsion. If all 10 referrals are being tardy to class, it would seem inappropriate to take up to expulsion for ten tardies to class. So there's some different things you have to think about."
Coker said she is aware some teachers believe students are getting too many chances and wish they were removed from the classroom more quickly if they are causing disruptions.
"We do hear a lot about meaningful consequences from our staff. And so when I think about meaningful consequences, we need to think about- who is it meaningful to? A consequence of suspension might be really meaningful to adults in our building and staff members, but how meaningful is that to a student? What are they learning from that?" questioned Coker.
Stallings said, "What teachers see that sometimes administrators miss is that we see the big picture. We see the impact that poor behavior has on the entire student body. Sometimes administration get focused on the rights and responsibilities on this individual student, who may be the bad actor in the situation. It's important for our system to do what's best for all of the students, not just kids misbehaving in class."
Coker agreed that students who consistently disrupt the classroom or school should be held accountable.
She said based on teacher input and committee discussions, they are adding a new code to the PDP this year to reflect consistent misbehavior.
"We hope to have something in place in the first nine weeks of school that addresses consistent offender behavior that's equitable for students but also helps staff," said Coker.
Getting on the same page CTA's survey showed at least 30% of teachers said they were not familiar with the Progressive Discipline Plan. 25% of those who wrote-in responses expressed confusion over what PDP is.
"The PDP has not been presented at my school. I am not even sure what it is," said one respondent.
Another said, "I've never heard of the PDP. We have very few discipline problems at our school, so this may be why it hasn't been rolled out for us yet."
Other teachers had heard of PDP but said their classrooms rarely had discipline issues so they've never had to use it.
Regardless of whether they have discipline issues, Coker said she is concerned so many teachers haven't heard of the new plan.
"Of course that's a concern for us. As we rolled it out to administrators last year, our thought process was that we'd roll it out to the teachers through the administrators. But we didn't have a real thoughtful process for that. So we've reflected."
This year, she said, the district made a Power Point presentation that will be given to all principals to present to staff.
They plan on sending out quarterly surveys to make sure the plan was presented and understood.
The group of West Ashley High School teachers we talked to are concerned the PDP is not available as a public document to them, parents or students. They said in their statement: "The greatest frustration with the PDP is that it is conveniently said to be in draft form when questions are raised concerning the PDP. It seems to be in a state of flux, so how are we to explain to anyone when the 'rules' can be changed at any time. We are also frustrated because the district says that this is a 'draft' and stakeholders are not able to access it. The link that stakeholders are given by the district is not the PDP but is the Behavior Contract - two totally different documents. Stakeholders are unaware of this significant difference."
The district does not consider the document public yet because it is still being revised and updated.
Coker expects the PDP to be presented as a public document in the 2018-2019 school year.
We asked why the district didn't just release PDP as it was updated in drafts.
Coker said, "I think that's very confusing. If we release it now, and people download it and they print it, they expect a response that matches that consequence. Then we change in two months it's revised, they don't know it's been revised. I think it'll cause a lot of conflict for our schools and administrators."