High school principal implements new discipline techniques, suspension rate decreases drastically

Lincoln High School Principal Jim Sporleder wasn’t sure a new approach to student discipline would work — but when it did, he never disciplined using the old approach again.

The new approach worked so well that suspension rates in the Walla Walla, Wash. high school decreased by 85 percent.

So, how does Sporleder’s new discipline approach work?

Students at Lincoln were involved in gangs, kicked out of their former schools and sent to Sporleder as a last effort. So, Sporleder and his staff took action. When a student has an outburst or misbehaves in class, the teacher quickly reacts. Sometimes, the teacher asks the student to step out into the hall for a brief conversation about what’s really going on. Other times, the teacher asks the student if they are interested in spending the class period in in-school suspension to calm down.

Sporleder explained that students still receive consequences, but they aren’t sent home, because there isn’t much accountability or support there. Instead, when a student acts out, Sporleder sits down with them and listens. He asks questions, and usually finds out the student’s anger or behavior stems from outside the classroom. And the student must make amends with those they’ve affected. During in-school suspension, the student can talk to the teachers, work on homework, or think about how they can handle the situation differently next time.

And if the student’s behavior requires a visit to Sporleder’s office, he uses the zone system — three levels associated to red, yellow and green — to gauge how a student is handling their emotions. When emotions are in the red, Sporleder often recommends time to cool off before discussing consequences.

Before the new approach, there were 798 suspensions (days students were out of school), 50 expulsions and 600 written referrals in the 2009-10 school year. Once the new approach was implemented, Lincoln had 135 suspensions, 30 expulsions and 320 written referrals in the 2011-12 school year.

Schools in the U.S. suspend millions of kids each year — more than three million, each year, to be exact. According to a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, suspension rates have increased substantially since the 1970s. And for minority students, in particular, the situation is grave —  in fact, the rate of suspension for African American students more than doubled since the 1970s, and is now triple the rate of white students.

Research has found that zero-tolerance policies may correlate to dropout rates in high school. Another study found that schools with higher suspension rates tend to have have higher rates of dropouts.