"Expulsion heartbreaking but necessary"

From Michael Milkie, in the Chicago Sun-Times, via Eduwonk.  MM is founder of the excellent Noble charter school network.

My wife and I were teachers in Chicago public high schools when we applied to open the first Noble high school. There were many terrific teachers in those CPS schools and thousands of students with the potential and desire to have productive careers.

Unfortunately, it was difficult to teach and learn because of the disruptions caused by a minority of students. These disruptive and sometimes dangerous behaviors also contributed to low attendance rates and high dropout rates.

We believed that the best way to support students’ success in college, career and life was to run schools with a culture of high expectations and personal accountability. After 15 years, we know this to be true. This culture is a key ingredient of Noble’s success where more than 90 percent of our graduates go on to college.

We’ve made a promise to our parents that their children will learn in a safe, calm and focused environment. We promise that our classrooms and halls will be free from violence and disruptive behavior. We promise that we will socially and academically support our students while holding high expectations for them despite the many social issues they face.

Absent are metal detectors, bullying and fighting, and yelling students, teachers and principals. Absent is the police presence seen in far too many of our city’s public high schools. Our high attendance rates and graduation rates reflect the focused and safe environment.

This hard work has led to the expulsion of students who threaten the safety and environment of others. We serve thousands of students every year, with an expulsion rate of about 1 percent. These decisions are heartbreaking, but we must fulfill our promise to the parents of the other 99 percent of students.

...What we cannot do, however, is compromise the culture and learning environment of the 99 percent of students for the disruptive 1 percent. We must not perversely disincentive our schools from addressing those who compromise the learning environment for the majority of students.

A very thoughtful op-ed. 

I still remember our first expulsions at Match.  Kids bringing knives to school, 3 separate occasions.  Our rule said: weapon is automatic expulsion.  We didn't check kids carefully upon arrival, no metal detector or anything.  Teachers built a positive culture and trust, so it made it more likely we'd get a tip from kids -- i.e., loyalty to school culture sometimes trumped loyalty to "no snitching" code.  And then we'd talk to a kid, not search him or walk him through a metal detector.  And he'd say: "Yeah.  I did it.  Here it is.  I knew I was breaking a rule.   Here's why I did it." Always heartbreaking. 

On Code of Conduct, teachers and leaders never feel like they have it exactly right.  Always a mix of feeling too strict or too lax or (usually) both.

In our second year, Geoff got in a fight on the way home.  He was carrying a knife.  The fight escalated.  He was shot and killed.  Maybe it wouldn't have escalated if Geoff wasn't carrying a knife.  Maybe Geoff would have taken their taunts without standing up for himself.  Shamed but alive.  In hindsight, we wondered: should we search kids for weapons, like they do in most high schools?  With metal detectors and uniformed guards and sometimes even dogs (for drugs)?  Maybe we're too lax.  Maybe if we combined a search-and-expel policy, Geoff would be around.

We decided not to.

And on the other side,  Fritz was carrying a weapon which he said (and we believed).  If I recall, it actually fell out of his pocket.  He said it was to protect him from gang members in his neighborhood, and he would never use it in our school community.  We believed him.  We had a clear rule, though, and he was expelled.  We wondered if we were too strict in enforcing the rule.   Teachers and staff end up in this Kafka-esque world as an educator, examining the crazy reality of our kids' lives and wondering the right set of rules and consequences.  You end up thinking crazy things like "Should our students be able to check their weapons at the door, like a saloon in the Wild West, and pick them up on the way home, because the police in Boston are utterly unable to protect (minority) kids from gangs?"

Let's not romanticize the gangs: they're ruthless and predatory and cause deep, deep shame to city boys in particular who are their targets, even more so than normal victims of bullying in suburban schools.  There's part of an educator that thinks "Hey if that was my kid, and he had to live in that unsafe neighborhood, and the reality was that yes, carrying a weapon poses obvious risks (of escalation, of arrest), but also genuinely also serves as a deterrent so he can go to and from school without humiliation, what would I tell my kid to do?"  It's not always an easy question.

We can quibble what the rules should be.  The problem with national policy is the usual problem with one size fits all.  In a school choice system, consequences should be clearly posted, not just rules (this is where lots of mischief begins -- rules with unclear consequences).  Families should pick schools, and thereby decide the rules they want to sign up for.  So should teachers.  I.e., each teacher should choose a school where they feel the tradeoffs make sense.  And once they choose, parents and teachers, then rules and consequences should be enforced consistently.

Here's where it gets tricky.  Teachers already essentially exercise that choice option.  They usually don't know the "true rules and consequences" when they take a job, so they can't exercise choice on the front end.  But they vote with their feet.  They leave urban middle and high schools, usually describing school culture issues as a key cause.  I fear that well-intended public policy to reduce suspensions and expulsions will exacerbate what teachers are already saying, which is "This school environment is crazy."  Teachers respond to lax rule enforcement on the back end.  They leave.  Kids in the most troubled schools typically lack choice.  Otherwise they'd already be gone. 

(As I note from time to time, I don't speak for Match in any official capacity.  I'm a volunteer board member).