During the 2008–2009 school year, Garfield High School (GHS), which serves 2,500 students in East Los Angeles, had 683 suspensions; students with disabilities accounted for more than 135 of them. The school district responded to this high number of suspensions with a new policy: GHS staff would be trained in School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (SWPBIS), with the goal of advancing the development of the school’s progressive discipline plan.
Changing the policy: Replacing suspensions with referrals. GHS enacted a moratorium on suspensions and instead implemented a multistage process for resolving behavioral infractions while keeping students in school. As recommended by the Los Angeles Unified School District, the school formed a ‘Coordination of Services Team’ (COST), facilitated by a psychiatric social worker and comprising a nurse, a pupil services assistant, a counselor, a parent liaison, a dean of discipline, the assistant principal, and representatives from campus police.
When a student has a problem, any staff member can make a referral to COST. The referral form is extensive and ensures that the student receives all the interventions and services that he or she needs. COST meets once a week to follow up on all referrals. Staff members carefully review each case and develop an action plan targeted to that student. All referrals are tracked using a computer-based system and reviewed weekly by a discipline review team.
Creating teachable moments. The policy of replacing suspensions with referrals complements the philosophy of school personnel: to view conflicts as educational opportunities. For instance, when bullying issues emerged on campus, the school added assemblies to discuss what bullying is and why it’s unacceptable. Detention is seen as a time for reflection and discussion. If a student is sent to detention for using a racial slur, for example, a teacher will discuss with that student why slurs are harmful and unacceptable.
Discipline and safety plan. The school created a written plan clarifying that safety and discipline are everyone’s responsibility. Building on its SWPBIS training, GHS identified three core behavioral expectations for students: Be Safe, Be Responsible, and Be Respectful. The school then incorporated these core expectations into its Expected School-wide Learning Results: Persons of Character, Communicators, and Critical Thinkers. Rules and policies are reviewed at Small Learning Communities assemblies, where school police officers discuss laws related to sexual harassment, weapons, and drugs. Students contribute to the assemblies in many ways, such as determining topics and creating motivational posters addressing school rules.
Results. Through these efforts, GHS has established a number of meaningful and positive policies to address school discipline. Quantifiable results testify to the strength of the policy change: During the 2011–2012 school year, GHS issued only one suspension, and the school’s graduation rate increased from 62% to 71%.