Is it a playground or a prison yard?
Portland-area children are telling On Your Side Investigator Anna Canzano their experiences at recess and how they can't always count on the grown-ups to help:
"I fall a lot ... people push me."
"They just come up to somebody and injure them."
"Usually I see kids fighting like about toys and stuff."
It's with a quiet acceptance the children we talked with describe the chaos and conflicts they're seeing during recess, but it's with a measure of desperation they identify what they need and what's missing.
"There's only two teachers on the playground," said Portland second-grader Nyima Bonner. The 8-year-old told Canzano it would help to have more grown-ups supervising.
"When there's no grown-ups to help, I usually try to help and figure something out," said fifth-grader Michelle Nguyen.
"The teachers aren't always people you can rely on," lamented fifth-grader Chloe Bostick.
They're sobering words, but adults are echoing the kids' sentiments.
A Reynolds school district employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, shared with Canzano their concern about the frustration of the children who are daily victims. The employee is worried that speaking out will cost them their job, but points out that one of the key problems is the ratio of adults to kids, estimating that at a normal recess, there are just two adults supervising upwards of 200 kids.
The employee said those adults also don't have walkie-talkies, so they're cut off from the rest of the staff. If one of the two adults needs to take a problem kid to the principal's office, the ratio's even worse.
Also, the educator claims there is an effort to downplay the severity of the issue, saying in some situations staff members are encouraged not to do referrals or write up incidents.
"One thing we were told was that we were writing too many referrals for a particular group of culture of kids -- a particular population -- and not to write so many. So I've seen incidents where children (one ethnic group) who really should have had some kind of consequence aren't getting it," said the employee.
Sixty percent of Reynolds kids are students of color. One in four doesn't speak English as their primary language.
In the 2009-2010 school year staff members wrote up African American students nearly three times as often as white students, Latinos twice as often.
When the On Your Side Investigators examined more recent student punishment rates they found a dramatic drop in disciplinary referrals.
At Davis Elementary, one of the worst performing schools in Oregon, referrals for fighting and physical aggression dropped from 61 in the 2011-12 school year to just six last year. The drop in referrals at Glenfair Elementary, another underachieving school, was even more dramatic -- from 93 referrals for fighting to just eight.
Reynolds School District spokeswoman Andrea Watson told Canzano she's not aware of staff members being encouraged not to write up certain students based on ethnicity. However, she said, "We are doing a lot of work around equity and treating kids the same. Multnomah County has released a report on how we tend to discipline students for subjective offenses."
That report from 2012 showed black students in Multnomah County were three and a half times more likely to get expelled than white students, Latinos twice as likely.
Faced with this data, Reynolds and several other Portland-area districts did an about-face.
First, the zero tolerance policies of the past have been replaced with Positive Behavior Supports (PBIS) - a system that all but removes punishment from schools. For example, instead of office referrals and suspensions, staff uses warnings and time-outs.
But some districts are struggling to find the money to support PBIS long-term, which requires districts to hire and train special coaches to help monitor kids. It means more problem students left on the playground and fewer adults to control them.
And what about that adult-to-kid ratio? Watson said having more adults would certainly help, though she disputes the whistleblower's claim of a two adults to 200 kid ratio as the norm.
"Is it something we've targeted or recommended for additional staffing? Not in the coming year," said Watson.
Watson said she's also talked with principals at every school in Reynolds, who assure her playground monitors should all have working walkie-talkies.
The educator who turned to KATU insists that's not their reality.
"I don't know any adults in the building that are happy with the way we handle behavior."
Reynolds is part of something called the Oregon Leadership Network, which includes the school districts Portland Public, Beaverton, Tigard-Tualatin, Centennial, Forest Grove and Hillsboro.
These districts are using data about how minorities are treated to change everything from classroom instruction to hiring practices and discipline.
A decade ago, task force schools averaged 10 referrals a month for every 100 students.
Now they're writing about four.
At the elementary school level, white students are being suspended more often than students of color.
The Reynolds district has worked with the nonprofit Playworks. It's at the forefront of fighting the recess problem and trains kids themselves to mitigate playground conflicts.
It held a workshop this spring at the University of Portland that trained fourth- and fifth-graders to be Playworks "junior coaches." Students learn to manage recess at their schools and lead games that include kids from all grade levels.
"They're the first line of defense if conflicts come up. Not only are they trying to make it a positive healthy environment and encourage cheering and positive language, they have tools they can use," said Tara Doherty, Playworks program director.
"It's not okay when kids are disrespecting each other," said fifth-grader Max Hill.
The junior coaches are also given the elementary school equivalent of the fast passes you can use at Disneyland to go to the front of the line. When they see a fellow student doing or saying something positive at recess, they dole out those fast passes as rewards, allowing classmates to skip to the front of the line.
Playworks offers help for families and educators:
- Playground strategies
- More than 200 games to play
- 8 tips to a gleeful recess
- Conflict resolution techniques
Did the four square ball bounce in or out? Who was first in line? Who gets to use the red marker first? These types of conflicts occur countless times in elementary schools. Rather than let small conflicts escalate and take valuable time to solve, teach students to play a simple game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.
Here’s how to play: Counting to three (or while saying “rock paper scissors”), two players bounce their fists in the air. On “three” or “scissors”, players pick either rock, paper or scissors—as shown in the image. If both players choose the same object, they go again. Rock crushes scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock. (Note: there is no physical contact necessary to play this game.)
Children are known to blame others when a problem arises, (i.e. “He did it!”) Adults know that it often takes more than one person to start a conflict. Teaching children to recognize emotions, both in themselves and others, helps. Using an I-statement, such as “I feel sad when you don’t play with me,” allows children to identify their emotion instead of blaming others. Guide children through talking out their conflict with I-messages before discussing possible solutions. In time, children will become better at using I-statements without adult guidance. Second Step is one curriculum which encourages emotional literacy and the use of I-messages in schools.
Provide guided steps for students to take when resolving conflicts. Teach these to students and post on a wall or paint them on the playground. The path may have statements to finish, such as “I feel... when....” and “I need...”, or things for students to answer, such as “what happened?”, “how would you feel?”, and “brainstorm a solution.” Create your own like this San Francisco school or use the Peacemakers program from Soul Shoppe.
By identifying and training student leaders to become conflict managers, schools empower youth. Student mediators can be available on and off the playground to help other students. When kids lead by example, other students learn conflict resolution techniques from their peers. Peer mediation may also be more available to students who worry about ‘tattling’ to adus. Find a curriculum that is right for your school.