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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


January/February 2013

Does your district have progressive discipline policies?
by Martin D. Felesena

Martin D. Felesena, principal of Central High School, Central CUSD 4 in Clifton, has been a public school administrator in Illinois for 14 years, nine at the middle school level and five at the high school level, serving as a principal, assistant principal, dean of students and athletic director.  

In public education, many things tend to follow the 90/10 rule in our schools and classrooms: we tend to spend 90 percent of our time and resources working with 10 percent of our student population.

Whether addressing the critical learning needs of our special education students or the habitual misbehavior of secondary students, this is a common frustration of board members and administrators everywhere.

At the middle school and high school levels, most school administrators spend the majority of their time dealing with a small fraction of students because of habitual discipline concerns. Many of these discipline situations also take valuable time at the school board level.

Therefore, the challenge for districts becomes twofold:

1) Addressing and attempting to eliminate the habitual behavior concerns typically found in about 10 percent of students, and

 2) Freeing up personnel and other valuable resources to improve student learning and learning outcomes, the most important objectives of their organization.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine and I developed a structured and proactive approach to secondary (grades 6-12) school discipline called Progressive Discipline Policy (PDP). Now, years later, this system continues to pay dividends to our schools and communities.

PDP fundamentally changes the way that students, parents, teachers and administrators approach school discipline. At face value, the system appears very strenuous and inflexible, but a closer look (and years of data) suggests the contrary.

Description of the PDP
The PDP program, as detailed in the accompanying table, consists of a five-level, 13-step sequence that certainly curbs, and all but eliminates, habitual, undesired behaviors in most students.

Each student begins the school year with 13 “chances” to conform to both a desired and effective school climate. Minor, inconsistent behaviors are addressed at the classroom level (Level 0) and it is not until Level 1 that the administration becomes involved. Once a student enters Level 1, they can receive up to five after-school detentions (Steps 1-5). These detentions are successful deterrents of future misbehavior for most students.

The vast majority of students will never progress beyond this level and PDP eliminates the ineffective practice of issuing students 30, 40 or even 50 after-school detentions in a year, which is clearly not a deterrent or a viable consequence.

Those students who work their way through five after-school detentions find themselves in Level 2, which consists of three Saturday detentions (Steps 6-8). Saturday detentions are not popular among secondary students and most, who find themselves at these steps, refrain from violating discipline procedures for the remainder of the school year.

Students who have completed Step 1 through Step 8 find themselves in Step 9, in-school suspension. This one-day suspension is an opportunity for both the student and the administration to reflect on how both parties progressed to this point and to discuss the future consequences of poor decisions.

Steps 10 through 12 of Level 4 consist of three out-of-school suspensions consisting of:   a three-day suspension, a five-day suspension and a 10-day suspension. These steps are reserved for students whose educational priorities do not match the school’s priorities and who may need to consider an alternative placement. In the rare instance that a student completes Steps 1 through 12 without successful resolution, Step 13 of Level 5 prescribes a 10-day suspension and a recommendation for expulsion from the formal school setting.  

Development of a PDP
The best part of this program is the ability to customize it to fit into an existing disciplinary consequence structure and into the unique needs of a district. The levels and steps outlined should be used as a starting point for developing a district-specific PDP.

Successful development should involve input from a variety of stakeholders including:   board members, administrators, teachers, parents and students. The structure and consequences need to be clearly delineated, understood and supported by everyone to ensure successful implementation.

It is important to consider specifying consequences in PDP that follow consequences that are already in place and that are familiar to everyone in the district. The most important thing to remember during program development is that, once developed, it must be credible enough to be supported by all involved, especially the board of education.

Implementation/management
Once developed, successful implementation of the program is essential. The newly created PDP must be adequately communicated and explained to parent groups, students and teachers. The message needs to be that progressive discipline improves the learning climate and learning potential for all students.

It is also advisable to communicate that, although the program may seem strict, research shows that the vast majority of students will rise to the level of expectations set for them. High behavioral expectations will result in an improved school climate and, in turn, an improved school climate will result in increased student achievement.

Once the PDP has been collaboratively developed and carefully implemented, the district must take responsibility to ensure that a common sense approach is used to manage it.

Successful management involves:

1)  better discipline management at the classroom level;

2)  more consistent communication with students and parents at the building level; and

3)  higher behavioral expectations set at the school board level.

Also important to note is that although the PDP sequences from Step 0 through Step 13, certain major infractions may result in skipping a few steps on the progression.

For example, a student who does not have any discipline infractions for the year and gets in a physical altercation at school may progress directly to Step 10, three-day suspension. This student, however, has not used Steps 1 through 9 and those steps are still available to them after they return from their suspension in Step 10.  

The primary purpose of progressive discipline is to deter habitual student behaviors that disrupt the learning environment for other students — the purpose is not to suspend or expel students.

In 14 years of using this system, or a deviation of it, at both the middle school and high school levels, I can count on one hand how many students have been expelled because of this program. It sets clear discipline expectations, it is a proven deterrent to habitual student misbehavior, and it makes sense.

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