A consistent concern of the Worcester School Committee in recent years has been student discipline incidents and practices. The issue can be rather complex. Schools work to maintain a culture and environment which is ordered, mutually respectful, and conducive to academic achievement. Actions which disrupt this environment are often assigned disciplinary consequences. At the same time, though, schools are reluctant to remove an offending student from class instruction, as in doing so they often compromise the academic achievement of the student. As a result, schools try to balance these considerations – a tenuous and delicate task at best.

While School Committees are rarely involved in student discipline proceedings under current Massachusetts law, they are very focused on maintaining a school environment which helps to enable student academic success. The Worcester School Committee is in the forefront here, striving to support policies, procedures and practices which keep students in school, and which focus schools on academic achievement. Thus, last week, the School Committee’s Standing Committee on Accountability and Student Achievement devoted much of its meeting to “a chart indicating the number of school behavioral referrals, by school”, for the previous three school years. The chart is the first comprehensive, multi-year, school-by-school presentation as to disciplinary infractions which the School Committee has received during recent years. It contains a wealth of beneficial information, and it is well-poised to inform the efforts of the School Committee to fashion sound disciplinary policies. It will assist the current strategic planning initiative of the Worcester Public Schools, as to school environment and culture, as well.

The statistics do show significant variations. In 2014-15, for example, Elm Park Community School reported 1729 infractions, which increased to 2787 in 2015-16, before declining to 2494 in 2016-17. West Tatnuck Elementary School, on the other hand, reported three infractions in 2014-15, followed by 18 in 2015-16, and 2 in 2016-17. For Middle Schools, the infractions in 2014-15 ranged from 1574 at Worcester East Middle School to 560 at Forest Grove. In 2015-16, Worcester East Middle offenses had increased to 1689, before declining to 1341 for 2016-17. Forest Grove saw increases to 594 for 2015-16, and to 802 for 2016-17. For Worcester High Schools, North High School saw a three-year trend of 1508, 1514 and 1252 – an ultimately  improving pattern similar to that of Worcester East Middle, its “feeder school.”  Among the large comprehensive high schools throughout this time, South has experienced the fewest infractions, with a three-year pattern of 584, 749 and 456, followed by Burncoat, with a three-year pattern of 1011, 912 and 950. The Technical High School during these years has demonstrated an infraction record of 220, 167 and 295.

While these statistics are interesting, and while they do provide useful guidance for school principals and those charged with school policy, they offer little real enlightenment as to a comparison among schools. They may reflect best the internal practices as to logging, and processing, infractions – what is handled informally at one school can become a documented incident at another. Also, some schools may define infractions differently than others; approximately one-half of the offenses at Elm Park are documented as “inappropriate behavior”, while for some other schools this is less than 3% of the infractions reported. For some schools, “physical contact” is one-third of reported infractions; for others it is negligible. Here again, schools document similar offenses is different manners.

Some School Committee members are monitoring improper cellphone use in schools closely, especially with a new rule in place that no longer requires that phones be placed in student lockers during the school day. As might be expected, high schools are a primary venue for such infractions. In 2016-17, Burncoat led the secondary schools with 196 reported offenses, followed by the Technical High School (130) and Doherty (120). North reported 57 such infractions, and South reported none! In 2014-15, Doherty had reported 163 such infractions, North 29, Burncoat 92, and the Technical High School one. Here again, it is difficult to determine whether the variation – which is dramatic at Burncoat and Worcester Tech – reflects increased misuse of cellphones, or rather different patterns of vigilance on the part of the staff and administrators.

The Worcester Public Schools, though, are seeing progress as to their most significant offenses – those which lead to long-term suspension hearings. In 2014-15, hearings were held on 59 alleged assaults on school employees; in 2016-17, the number of such hearings had dropped to 32. Weapons hearings had declined during that time from 71 to 38. Drugs/alcohol hearings were reduced from 46 to 32.

In any study of these figures, it is important to recall the advice quoted occasionally by Mark Twain: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  The figures set forth in the report, and in this article, may state more about individual schools’ approaches to discipline than they do about the comparative safety, and orderliness, of the schools themselves.

Last January, the U.S. Department of Education stated, in its guidance on “Rethinking Discipline”, that “[t]eachers and students deserve school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning. Creating a supportive school climate—and decreasing suspensions and expulsions—requires close attention to the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students” The Code of Conduct of the Worcester Public Schools echoes this, stating that “[e]very student has a right to an education in a safe, secure and supportive environment, and every teacher has a right to expect respectful, prepared students in his/her classroom.” I suspect that all Worcester schools agree with these comments. Clearly, long-term suspension hearings for assaults on school employees, weapons, and drug and alcohol offenses are diminishing. As the other statistics show, though, schools are addressing other behavioral topics in different ways, some through approaches that record and respond to infractions, others through less formalized means. Ultimately, though, all schools are charged with creating, and preserving, “school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning”, and this goal will remain a key focus of the schools, and of the Worcester School Committee, in the weeks, months and years ahead.

About Brian O'Connell, Worcester School Committee

Brian O’Connell is a member of the Worcester School Committee. An attorney, he is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and of Harvard Law School. He is the Chief Financial Officer / Business Manager of the Haverhill Public Schools. He is also Secretary of the Board of Trustees of Worcester Academy, Chair of the Audit Committee of the Academy, a member of the Board of Trustees of Anna Maria College, Chair of the Finance and Audit Committee of the College, and Past President and current member of the Board of Directors of the Holy Cross Alumni Association. He is Past President, a Life Member and member of the Resolutions Committee of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

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