How One D.C. School Is Challenging Conventional Wisdom Around School Discipline

Mr. Hagans sits with students of Eagle in the PRIDE room. Image via Eagle Academy. 

The Pride Room at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., looks and sounds more like a luxury spa than a classroom.

The sound of beach waves crashing on the sand plays from a white noise system, while lavender oil diffuses from an aromatherapy machine that gives off a rotation of calming colors. Yoga mats and reflection sheets are purposefully laid out for individualized meditation practices. 

This is not a pampered perk for the best academic performers at Eagle Academy; instead, it’s punishment for the troublemakers.

“To assume that every student is going to be reached in the exact same way is ludicrous,” Robert Hagans, one of Eagle’s behavior specialists and the self-proclaimed “in-school dad,” said. “We have different systems coming in to the building to work with the concerns that we have.”

Royston Lyttle, the principal of this campus, said resources like the Pride Room — and other Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) strategies recently implemented by the school — are why school discipline numbers have dropped dramatically. In the 2014-2015 school year, administrators at Eagle gave 1,393 referrals for discipline. By the end of 2017, that number was sliced by more than half, to 628.

“We strongly believe in no in-school suspensions, and limit[ing] out-of-school suspensions as much as possible,” Lyttle said. “We believe that just because you put a child outside of school for suspension, it will not fix the problem. The behavior will still be there.”

According to Lyttle, Eagle trains teachers how to discern the root causes of concerning behavior, not just the symptoms. Are those causes age-expected, or possibly related to a disability or, perhaps, a result of trauma? Using this questioning, teachers apply interventions and discipline according to a tiered system of behavior: anywhere from a verbal redirection, to a note home, to an office referral.

Once a month, Lyttle convenes a team of 10 behavior specialists, counselors, psychologists and a Department of Mental Health representative to review discipline data. Based on their analysis, they implement interventions according to what a certain classroom, teacher, or student needs. 

“Being able to recognize that these students are individuals with their own histories, with their own issues and problems, is the first step in meeting them where they need to be in order to grow them where they need to grow to,” Hagans said.

Last year, Eagle issued zero in-school suspensions and recorded only one bullying incident — astoundingly low statistics for a school its size. The total number of violent incidents fell 30 percent from 2014-2015 to 2017. And while there were 18 out-of-school suspensions documented at the end of last year, that number has been nearly halved from just two years ago.

In a school of 780 students in a neighborhood prone to violence, sometimes building a safe space for teacher-student connection takes a backseat to classroom management. The easiest way to manage behavior is falling back on heavy punishment practices, which Lyttle said rarely addresses the core of the problem.

Almost 30 students have been directly affected by homicide at Eagle, and, “Once that happens, the students struggle,” Lyttle said.

These students are told they can take a break in the Pride Room with behavior specialists if they have a bad day. Even before it reaches that point, teachers implement specific classroom strategies that are based on empathy and “a reiteration of positive language and redirection” to deescalate the situation, according to Director of Student Climate Krystie Wilson.

“[We are] making ourselves more aware as a teacher and staff member on how we’re relating to and interacting with students,” Wilson said.

On May 31, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited teachers and educators at schools in Hanover, Md., who, like Lyttle’s team at Eagle, are implementing PBIS strategies in their classrooms.

The visit came at a time when DeVos and her school safety commission are hosting private discussions, school visits, and panels to consider rolling back Obama-era regulations that were implemented to curb discipline practices that disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities. Under the Trump administration, the department says it is concerned the policy prevents school officials from properly addressing dangerous behavior.

“We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education,” DeVos said in a 60 Minutes interview in March.

“We are studying that [Obama-era policy]. We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students means all students.”

Eagle Academy is 98 percent African-American, and 15 percent qualify for special-education services, a high percentage for a charter school. Almost 100 percent of the students receive free school meals, due to their income being near or below the federal poverty level.

Eagle caters to the specific demographic that the Obama-era federal discipline policy was implemented to protect.

DeVos said she is looking forward to learning more about the “proven strategies” of PBIS in other schools that build a “safe and supportive culture.” She met with Eagle Academy leaders last June to learn about their special education services.

The secretary is still meeting with advocates against the regulation, despite findings in the Government Accountability Office’s recent March 2018 report, “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities,” which pulled discipline data from 19 schools in five districts across the country.

The report found that in all types of discipline — including out-of-school and in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsion, corporal punishment and school-related arrests — black students were overrepresented in the data.

African-American students make up more than 15 percent of public school students in the United States, yet they represent an overwhelming 39 percent of students suspended, the GAO noted.

Researchers are also pressing DeVos to reconsider a second policy reform her department is reviewing. Although the secretary wants to expand vouchers for students in low-income neighborhoods, recent data show D.C. students who attend schools on a voucher — the only program of its kind in the nation — have “significantly” lower math scores than their peers.

Donna Ford, professor of special education at Vanderbilt, studies the long-term effects of bias in the classroom.

“[Teachers need to] be more skilled in at least two things,” she said. “One, evaluate the context: What led to this instead of assuming one person is the cause of the problem? And two: Be willing to acknowledge that you have your biases and you have to be able to check yourself.”

Wilson, the academy’s director of student climate, works one-on-one with teachers at Eagle to identify how their own behaviors contribute to escalating situations. 

Wilson asks them, “‘Did I play a role in the child escalating or losing control? What could I have done differently to manage that behavior better?’”

Such reflection can have long-term, social-emotional benefits for students. As someone who remembers the experience of feeling targeted in the classroom because he is African-American and male, Luke Wood draws inspiration for his research as the dean’s distinguished professor of education at San Diego State University from his own memories.

“I was one of those students who was repeatedly disciplined, particularly when I was in fifth grade,” Wood said. “The work for me emerged from how isolating and marginalizing that experience was.”

Wood’s work revolves around suggesting solutions for teachers to bring empathy into the classroom, especially when working with students of color and disability.

“Some educators view black boys and particularly the black students in general as being problems, as being in need of some sort of restraint,” he continued.

As a behavior specialist, Hagans says addressing concerning behavior must start and end with empathic teachers who take the time to serve as holistic support systems for students.

“If this was a circus and we are teaching them how to walk the tight-rope, when they fall off, we are the net to catch them,” Hagans explained. “We get them back together and bounce them back up to the tight rope.”

Hannah Wiley is a freelance reporter covering education and politics in Chicago and D.C., and is graduating with her MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism with a specialization in investigative journalism. 

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