PORTLAND, Ore. – The number of David Douglas High School students disciplined for bad behavior jumped nearly 6 percent this academic year, according to new data released by the district to the On Your Side Investigators.
And two additional studies and a trove of internal district reports the On Your Side Investigators show persistent problems with bullying and repeat offenders.
The district reported 589 students had one or more Office Discipline Referrals, nearly 20 percent of all students. That’s up from 408 in the prior academic year, and it’s the highest total since 2010-11.
Until now, the district has denied claims of any increase in student discipline problems.
KATU first requested information about student behavior last week, after discovering cellphone video of two girls fighting on school property. The girl who’s seen throwing the first punch was suspended, and so was the victim; district officials said she should have run to report the problem, instead of defending herself.
The victim’s family contacted KATU because they felt the district was trying to gloss over the attack, while ignoring the ongoing harassment their daughter suffered at school and online before and after the fight. Within a day, the video had become a rallying cry for several other concerned parents who said bullies targeted their kids, too – often multiple times.
Now, a week after the problems came to light, the On Your Side Investigators have uncovered a state report that shows bullying and fights at David Douglas High School have been anything but rare. According to the 2012 Oregon Student Wellness Survey,
- Nearly 80 percent of David Douglas 11th graders witnessed bullying at school or on the bus (18 percent said it happened at least once or twice per week)
- 67 percent of 11th graders witnessed physical assaults
- 23 percent said they had been in fights themselves, about 10 percent on school property.
In emails to KATU last week, district spokesman Dan McClure refused to discuss the claims made by the families in our reports, describing it as an internal matter.
"Whenever we have concerned parents, they can and do come to our schools for those answers,” he wrote. “We do not communicate with our parents through the media."
In general, McClure said when a student has a problem with another student, the school uses an alternative discipline program called Restorative Justice (RJ) that encourages the children to “talk it out” themselves and make restitutions as necessary with adults in supporting roles.
“Almost all of these disputes are resolved through mediation or other peaceful means,” McClure wrote.
The RJ program was introduced in 2011-12. While the concept enjoyed wide support from students and staff, they roundly criticized the actual rollout as ineffective, short-handed and underfunded, according to a Portland State University study.
McClure dismissed the findings as outdated, “The comments you cited were made in the context of then severe budget cuts and layoffs. The relevance to your story in 2014 is negligible.”
But budget reports reviewed by KATU show the district hasn’t had the money to make a significant number of new hires; it’s hoping to increase staff in 2014-15.
And while McClure said, “David Douglas is a Restorative Justice school,” there’s just this one reference buried deep within the district website. Yet there are plenty of mentions for a different behavior improvement program: Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBiS).
Zero Tolerance to ‘Year Zero’
Endorsed by the Oregon Dept. of Education, PBiS is featured on the district report card, has its own home page, and there’s a PBiS PRIDE portal for the high school. The David Douglas program was even hailed as a “model for the state,” though it looks like the high school site hasn’t been updated in at least two years.
But documents we found there do reveal more raw data on unruly behavior at David Douglas High School. There were more than 1,600 'write-ups' in 2010-11: the top complaints were tardiness, disruptive behavior, willful disobedience, and cellphones in class.
Under the district’s old zero-tolerance policy, that kind of misbehavior got you an automatic after-school suspension.
Under PBiS, these were now ‘minor’ incidents, to be punished by a ‘time-out’ or a note home. Teachers were required to write up a student at least three times before they became a ‘major’ discipline problem. Kids got rewarded for good behavior, too (“Pride Tickets” could be redeemed at the student store).
The switch had immediate results: in 2008-09, ‘Year Zero’ of PBiS at David Douglas, there were 578 suspensions, down 125 from the year before.
Positive or Negative?
PBiS takes time to implement (at least 2 to 4 years) and money (for training, posters, printing, part-time staff, etc.). But as the state makes note in its 2013 evaluation of PBiS, funding the program has been a struggle across Oregon. If a school lacks resources, and/or commitment, the lack of consequences under PBiS backfires, since problem students aren’t being removed when appropriate. It’s seen in the backlash from last year in the Santa Ana, California school district. Teachers there said PBiS has “undermined real learning, driven up teacher frustration, and exacerbated disrespectful and even violent student behavior at several already-troubled schools.”
The PBiS Team Handbook spells out the greatest barriers to sustainability: “The loss of funds can undermine ongoing implementation. The turnover of staff and administrators ... leaves a huge void in continuity that disrupts school functioning … when you stop putting in the time and effort, benefits decline.”
That may explain why, during the first two years of budget and staff cuts (the district lost 130 teachers and 40 support staff), the annual suspension rate at David Douglas High School climbed back to the 600 mark – and why there was another dip in suspensions beginning in 2011-12, when Restorative Justice was introduced (thanks to a grant through Multnomah County).
But funding for the RJ program was “minimal” according to this report by the county, and the program coordinator, Resolutions Northwest, indicates grant levels have actually inched down since. Like PBiS, the lack of money may have undermined the long-term effectiveness, allowing rowdy behaviors to return (2013-14 referrals are up 6 percent, remember).
Need for Restraint
Another indication there may be growing disobedience and disruption in class: the district’s annual restraint and seclusion reports. The 2012-13 numbers are on the website, but we also found the 2011-12 data (see pg 21):
- In 2011-12 there were 27 incidents involving the physical restraint of a student; in 2012-13 there were 54.
- There were five incidents involving seclusion in 2011-12, 20 incidents in 2012-13.
- Injuries suffered, by staff or the student, as a result of restraint or seclusion: five in 2011-12, 16 in 2012-13.
Meanwhile, when suspensions are handed out, they’re longer – full day suspensions are now twice as common as they were in 2010-11.
|Academic Year||1/2 Day Suspension||1 Day Suspension||Up to 2 Days Suspension||Up to 5 Days Suspension||Up to 2 Weeks Suspension|
And for the first time in three years, the district was even forced to expel students: 11 children were kicked out of school in 2012-13, the most since the PBiS program began.
The 2012-13 data also show the district’s most disadvantaged students continue to be targeted for punishment more often than their peers:
- Black students were disciplined 2.4 times more often than white children
- Multiracial students were disciplined 1.5 times more often than whites
- Hispanic students had nearly equal parity with white children.
The numbers are nearly the same as the 2009-10 data found in the Multnomah County Commission on Children, Families & Community report that first called attention to Portland’s discipline disparity problem.
Underreporting the Problem?
The gap may be even greater: discipline incidents aren’t reported publicly on the state's Education Data Explorer, just the number of students disciplined. Oregon Department of Education policy states that no matter how many times a student gets into trouble, it only counts once for publication purposes.
Likewise, even the new internal numbers for referrals we received from David Douglas are vague: they show students with one or more referrals. Accuracy can make a significant difference: a new Education Northwest study of suspensions in six local school districts, which had access to raw incident data, found that in nearly 40 percent of the cases, students had been suspended, not once, but multiple times in the same year.