In bid to reduce suspensions, schools try de-escalation and ‘pull-ins’

Sep 16, 2016 by

By Jill Tucker –

Two years ago, students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in San Francisco were sent to the principal’s office 2,150 times for behavioral problems, an average of more than four trips for each of the 500 children enrolled.

The disciplinary referrals meant thousands of hours of lost learning time, not to mention 117 student suspensions in the most serious cases, leading to significantly more school missed.

That had to change, said Principal Michael Essien. But instead of focusing only on how students behave, he turned to how teachers respond — how in some cases they unintentionally make things worse with raised voices, pointed fingers and tense body language.

He signed his staff up last year for de-escalation training to learn the kinds of techniques that law enforcement agencies are increasingly adopting to avoid a violent confrontation.

Back up. Lower your voice. Use fewer words. Open your hands. Relax your face.

Such actions can prevent agitated students from getting to a point where they can no longer use rational thought to process a situation. They surge into a fight-or-flight mode that can prompt verbal or violent outbursts — and a subsequent trip to the principal’s office or a suspension, said Ben Kauffman, a district supervisor leading the de-escalation training.

Students returned Monday to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where a deescalation program is helping teachers. Photo: Connor Radnovich, The Chronicle

Photo: Connor Radnovich, The Chronicle

Students returned Monday to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where a deescalation program is helping teachers.

“That student is losing their own capacity to think,” he said. “Their frontal lobe is beginning to accelerate and not be rational.” De-escalation, he said, “is taking the air out of the balloon.”

Teachers learned to recognize when students were losing control — fidgeting, balling their fists, using a high-pitched, raised voice and making erratic movements. And the adults learned not to respond in kind.

“When a student is escalating, oftentimes the adult is not far behind them,” Kauffman said. “You take your ego out of the equation.”

The effort aligns with a local and national push to reduce suspensions. In January 2015, a new state law eliminated suspensions for “disruption or willful defiance,” which included nonviolent behavior that ranged from refusing to take a baseball cap off to launching profanity-laced tirades against a teacher.

The law sought to address a disproportionate impact on students of color, who nationally are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In San Francisco, African American students, who comprised 10 percent of enrollment, made up 50 percent of suspensions in 2013. District officials allocated increased funding to help schools use alternative measures to address student behavior.

Source: In bid to reduce suspensions, schools try de-escalation and ‘pull-ins’ – San Francisco Chronicle

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