Parents' Advice On Keeping Kids In School, On Track

Tell Me More continues the conversation on whether school suspensions actually do more harm than good. Host Michel Martin is joined by education reporter Sarah Gonzalez, New Jersey school administrator Brad Currie, and father and former prosecutor Glenn Ivey.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we will hear our last few poems of the year in celebration of National Poetry Month. We hope you'll stick around for that.

But first, we are going to continue talking about school suspensions. We just heard that two million American students were suspended in the 2009 academic year. That's according to a new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

We wanted to talk more about what's going on in schools today with people who are there, in and around schools often. Brad Currie is the vice principal of Black River Middle School. He's the supervisor of instruction in Chester, New Jersey. He's also a dad of two. Sarah Gonzalez is with us. She's a public radio journalist who has covered school suspensions in the state of Florida. She's currently a reporter with New Jersey Public Radio and member station WNYC. Also with us once again, Glenn Ivey. He's the father of six - which includes five boys - and a former prosecutor.

Welcome to you all - or welcome back, in some cases. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

BRAD CURRIE: Thanks.

GLENN IVEY: Thanks for having me, Michel.

SARAH GONZALEZ: Thanks, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Sarah Gonzalez, I'm going to start with you because you reported on this in Florida and I want to start with a clip from a student you interviewed last year. She was suspended for getting into a fight. Her name is Keisha Campbell. She was then a sixth grader at Nolan Middle School in Miami and she was talking about her suspension. Here she is.

KEISHA CAMPBELL: It's like jail. We have to have last lunch and last lunch means, like, after all the kids eat, you really, like, get, like, the scraps left. So they're trying to teach you, like, a lesson. They mark you absent for 10 days and, like, me - I go to school every day, so, like, those 10 days, like, messed up everything.

MARTIN: Now, again, she was talking about in-school suspension. I want to talk about that a little bit later. But, Sarah, first, I think people have the idea that kids don't mind being suspended because they can, you know, watch TV or get a break from the normal schedule. But that's not what you found, is it?

GONZALEZ: Right. So there are some kids who get the in-school suspension and there are some kids who get the out-of-school suspension and you do hear from students who say, you know, being in an in-school suspension is OK sometimes because they can miss out on having to take a test that day, for example. But a lot of the students that I spoke to said that it was kind of a scary place. I spoke to one student named Marcus Pryor and he said, this is where all the bad kids go and it makes me feel bad and it makes me feel scared.

MARTIN: And what about the out-of-school suspension? How do people feel about - how do the kids feel about that?

GONZALEZ: Right. So, again, sometimes, it's kind of, you know, a pass. You don't have to go to school, but other times, it becomes stressful for the families who have to find someone to watch over their kid. Sometimes, the home situation is more dangerous than having a student be on campus, even if they are just in a classroom.

MARTIN: Glenn, I wanted to ask you about that. As a former prosecutor, first, I want to put your former prosecutor hat on.

IVEY: Sure.

MARTIN: You know, what about that? You know, you often hear this phrase, the school to prison pipeline, especially for young men - especially for young men of color. Did you notice as a prosecutor, as a person in law enforcement, that there was an effect when there were kids out of school because of suspensions?

IVEY: Yeah. We had a lot of issues in Prince George's with kids who were basically walking the streets because of out-of-school suspensions and/or truancy, just flat out skipping school. There were higher incidences of auto theft in those neighborhoods, minor break-ins and burglaries in communities. And a lot of times, the kids would get in trouble depending on who they're hanging out with. So, when you had gang activity, for example, you had skip parties. There were rapes that were connected with that. Heavy drug use and alcoholism and, a lot of times, other violent activities that came later in the day because of the alcoholism that took place earlier, so...

MARTIN: Did you bring that to the attention of school authorities to say, you know what? When there are a high rate of suspensions, actually, this is what's going on outside? And what did they say?

IVEY: Yeah. What we did was we worked with the - I think it was Dr. Daisy(ph) at that point and he recognized it, as well, and so what we did was they tried to shift to more in-school, although, as you just heard, there are real challenges with that, too, including academically because you have 30 kids that are in 30 different places than, say, math, so how does one teacher get all of the 30 kids to do the work they're supposed to do? And the risk is huge, too, because you have some kids that are, for example, violent and kids that aren't, so you're putting a lot of people in the same place. So you have those challenges.

But coordinating the school system, the police department, which you want to play a minor role, but sometimes they have to pick kids up for the low level criminal activity, but more importantly, the parents and the community have to really step up and get more involved in this.

MARTIN: Brad Currie, as an educator, as an administrator, I'm wondering if you feel kind of between a rock and a hard place on this question because we've just heard a lot of discussion about how this can be really detrimental to kids, really detrimental to the psyche, really detrimental to their commitment and interest in going to school, very alienating.

On the other hand, I'm wondering if you're also hearing from parents who say, get these kids out of here. You know, if my kid was in a fight or if this kid is the kid who picked on my kid, you'd want that kid gone. Is that- talk to me about that.

CURRIE: Yeah. It all comes back to, you know, being safe. We want our kids to be in a safe learning environment. And, you know, I think Glenn really touched on something in terms of it's a collaborative effort with all school stakeholders - whether you're a parent, a student, school teacher, school administrator, police, you want to work together to ensure that these kids are held accountable, learn from their actions, and move forward.

So what we do in our school district here is that we have a very supportive environment. If a kid is a danger to himself or others and is suspended then, you know, that would probably call for an out-of-school suspension with some follow up and a reentry of some sort, and then when they would come back in a day or two, if it's a much more minor offense but there is an in-school suspension, that when they are serving the in-school suspension we are working with that child the next day. They are sitting with a certified educator who is working with them on their assignments that the teacher has forwarded to the office. They are meeting with the guidance counselor. We're sitting in with them. We also bring the parents in to make sure that we're all on the same page moving forward and it's really a collaborative effort. So we do our best in that sense.

MARTIN: Brad, how are you reacting to the data, which we heard in this report? Now this is not data about your district, but nationally, that found that certain groups are more likely to get suspended than others? That young black men in particular - young Latina men in some places, and also students with disabilities, have you found that to be true? And why do you think that might be? Mm-hmm.

CURRIE: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. That's a great question and, you know, it's, you know, students with disabilities, they have a disability for a reason, so we want to make sure that we have those reasons addressed and that we take those into consideration, you know, whether it's a social issue, getting along with others, you know, our team of educators and specialists really make sure that we put those kids in a position to succeed so that they don't put themselves in a position to suspended or what have you...

MARTIN: But, but...

CURRIE: If they are suspended - yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: But I'm asking you why that might be true. Mm-hmm. But I'm asking you why?

CURRIE: Yeah. Yeah. So that's, you know, particular I can speak to, you know, kids with disabilities. You know, they have a disability so they may have an issue with, you know, collaborating with others or speaking with others or learning with others so we want to make sure that we put them in a least restrictive environment to succeed. And, you know, that's part of their disability, they may not be able to, you know, hang out with others and really collaborate with others and for whatever reason they have certain disabilities, so we have to address those.

MARTIN: I see. OK. Sarah, I'm going to hear from you on this. You also found that young black men in Florida - when you reported on this question - were more likely to get out-of-school suspensions. Why was that true there?

GONZALEZ: Right. So they were more likely than white, Hispanic and Asian males combined to get the out-of-school over the in-school suspension. And, you know, you talk to people and you try to find out why that is and a lot of times they say that, you know, it was a perception thing, that black male students when they get angry they get more aggressive and so they want them out of school and they don't want them in that one classroom with all of the other students who were in there because they were tardy a couple of times, right?

And when you look at - in Florida, there's also the option to have students arrested for bad behavior. And when you look at the arrest records in schools in Florida, black students and students with disabilities are again, more likely to get arrested than anyone else.

MARTIN: So let's talk about in the time that we have left what might be done to intervene in this. I mean Glenn, do you have some thoughts on this - both as a father and also as a former prosecutor - because you would've been the person to deal with the consequence of that arrest?

IVEY: Yeah. I mean one of the things we looked at in the county - and I think we're still experimenting with it - is alternative school structures, where you have teachers, for example, some of these schools you'll have teachers who something jumps off and they're afraid to deal with it for whatever reason. They physically might not be able to deal with it or whatever, or they're not trained to and so then you can jump, for example, straight to the police being called.

Alternative school scenarios we found had teachers who were better able to A, predict that this kind of thing was going to come up, had stronger relationships with the students. And so, for example, let's say you had two gangs or crews that were about to get into some kind of fight, those kinds of teachers were able to figure it out early and cut it off. And we also had experiment with intervention individuals in schools. So those would be people who were typically young adults but not administrators who created relationships where they could have conversations with students and the students would frequently confide in them about problems that were coming up, physical conflicts, drugs being sold, you know, sex going on in some parts of the school, and then you could use that information to try and preempt that behavior.

MARTIN: Brad Currie, do you as an educator agree that suspension is something that should be the last resort? And if so, what do you see as a way to move toward that goal? Because again, I'm sure that people can say - particularly whose kids - who see their children as being sort of the victims of that kind of destructive behavior would like these kids not to be there. But if you think it has kind of long-term negative consequences, what have you seen that works?

CURRIE: Yeah, it's a last resort in my mind. You want to do everything possible, you want to exhaust all options to make sure you're doing what's best for kids. And, you know, I think Glenn touched on it before, you know, in rare instances in our district here in New Jersey, we do have to send these kids out because a different learning environment is what's best for them. But for the most part we keep these kids in-house and we work together with the child study team, guidance, parents, community members, what have you, to make sure we put these kids in a position to succeed. Action plans are very important and those are developed with the child, with the parent, with the educators and then put goals into place and solely, you know, make sure we're addressing their needs.

And I think that has worked - at least in the instances that I have dealt with - action plans and just a collaborative effort to make sure we put this child in a position to succeed. But if it gets to a point where it's just no longer in their best interest to be in our school, then we will find them an appropriate setting to place them in to make sure that their needs are met.

MARTIN: Sarah, I'm going to give you the final word here. Did you, you know, there are people who are doing research and then there are people who are in the schools every day. Did you find in your time in Florida that the educators there were concerned about these trends, were they concerned about these racial disparities and did they have any sense of what would be a good way to deal with it?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Absolutely. There's superintendent in Miami-Dade County, when I told them, when I showed them the data and said why is it that black males are getting suspended out of school more than any other subgroup, they were aware of the phenomenon and they had commissioned a taskforce to look into it. But as far as anything more than that, no, there's not too much that's going on.

MARTIN: And Glenn, I'm going to give you a final word here as well. As a parent, particularly a person who has kind of been on all different sides these kinds of interactions that can be kind of fraught and so tricky, do you have some guidance from your time as a prosecutor about ways that perhaps parents could (unintelligible) intervene more quickly? Because what I'm hearing from some of this behavior some of the parents don't even know about it until after it's occurred and they're actually confiding in other people.

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Final word of guidance?

IVEY: I think that's right. In fact, I had parents who would drive kid to school and drop him off not knowing that he was just walking through the school and going out the back door. So truancy and those sorts of issues are a huge problem. We had one individual, a guy named Phil Lee, who actually led the charge in addressing this problem in the county. He's not elected to anything, he's just a retired guy pulled the stakeholders together and really made a difference. Individuals can make a huge impact on this kind of thing.

MARTIN: And Brad, finally, when a student has been suspended, what's the most important thing a school can do to help a child get back on track - given all the evidence that we've observed that it can really have a terrible effect on the child's willingness and interest in going to school. What can a school do to get a child back on track?

CURRIE: Yeah. I think communication is key, as I spoke about before. And I think, you know, just having the kid know that there is somebody there for them to advocate for everything that they do in school, that they have somebody there. You know, we have an advisory program here where we match teachers up with various kids and administrators as well. And I think that's very important to check in on them on a weekly or daily basis to make sure that everything's OK, that their needs are met and that they're moving forward in a positive way. And I think that's very important, that mentorship, that advocacy is very important.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for speaking with us. Brad Currie is a vice principal at Black River Middle School. That's in Chester, New Jersey. He's also the supervisor of instruction there. He was with us on the line from his office. Glenn Ivey is a father of six, which includes five boys. He's a former prosecutor. He was with us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And Sarah Gonzalez is a reporter with New Jersey Public Radio and member station WNYC in New York. She has an extensive background in covering education. She was with us from New York.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thank you.

CURRIE: Thank you.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

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