New Approach Towards School Success

Dec 20, 2013

A new report from the University of Virginia and the Legal Aid Justice Center shows Virginia schools suspend black males at twice the rate of whites - often for minor offenses like being loud or disruptive in class, but another approach could solve the problem while keeping students in school. 


Each year, Virginia schools suspend more than 180,000 students -- 30,000 of them from elementary schools, and students of color - especially African-American boys - are at much greater risk of being kicked out.   At the Legal Aid Justice Center, attorney Angela Ciolfi says few of the offenses are serious.

“Those students are being suspended for relatively minor misbehavior such as being loud or disruptive in class, and we’ve got to be concerned about that, because it really plants the seeds for all kinds of troubling disparities in graduation rates, incarceration rates and in other outcomes down the road.”

And University of Virginia education professor Dewey Cornell says suspension doesn’t really address the problem.

“We have students who misbehave because they don’t understand what they’re learning.  We have students who misbehave because they’re troubled about something that happened.  Maybe they’re being bullied.  Maybe there’s a problem at home, and that general principle of taking a problem-oriented approach to threatening behavior - seeing it as symptom of an underlying problem is something that the FBI and the secret service recommended that schools do.”

He and his colleagues came up with a threat assessment program that involves teachers, administrators, social workers and counselors. They try to figure out how serious the threat is, what’s causing the problem and what can be done.

“We’ve trained over a thousand schools that are now using our model in Virginia.  They want to avoid overreacting to problems that are not that serious, but they also want to avoid underreacting to the really rare but serious cases that we sometimes see.”

Cornell says Virginia is a leader in this field because the state ordered threat assessment on college campuses after the shootings at Virginia Tech, and more recently  required it for elementary and secondary schools.  Frankly, he adds, school shootings - are relatively rare.

“We hear about them, and that creates a perception that they’re happening all the time.  The average school will experience a student homicide once every 6,000 years.  We have 125,000 schools, and even though we have a handful of school shootings every year, statistically they are very unlikely to occur in schools.”

Still, having a threat assessment team in place could prevent a crisis by giving students, teachers and parents a place to go with their concerns.

“Real prevention has to start before there’s a gunman in your parking lot.  It has to start with children who are troubled, maybe the emergence of mental illness in some cases, but a variety of problems and issues that we can recognize, and in most school shootings, when we do investigations we find out there were family members or friends who were concerned, didn’t know who to go to for help, and that’s where threat assessment teams can come in.”

In the mean time, he’s happy to report that threat assessment programs cut short term suspensions by 15% and long-term suspensions by 25% without detracting from school safety.  That, says lawyer Angela Ciolfi, is an important message for schools.

“We tend to think the only way to make schools safe is by sending students home when they misbehave, and the UVA study demonstrates that school safety and keeping young people in school go hand in hand.”
She sees suspensions as the fuel for a school to prison pipeline and believes keeping students in class makes graduation and future employment more likely.