Claren Chandler was two months pregnant with her daughter when she threatened to stab a Garfield High School classmate with a pair of scissors.
Prior to her subsequent expulsion, she had fallen behind on course work. She was “bored” and “irritated.” She found it difficult to sit for 7½ hours without getting into trouble.
“I just didn’t want to be there,” Chandler said in a recent interview.
Now 20 years old with a 3-year-old daughter, Chandler attends an alternative program in Akron Public Schools called Saturn. It is designed to provide students only what they need to graduate and none of the distractions that got them in trouble in the first place.
The program, school officials say, keeps delinquent students off the street and in the classroom, where they can continue to learn and avoid the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
“We don’t punish kids,” said Dan Rambler, director of student services for Akron Public Schools. “We discipline them.”
The goal is to correct behavior. The Saturn program, along with other initiatives, are last-ditch efforts to avoid expulsion, which researchers, advocates and legislators say only deprives students of instruction and decreases their chances of success in life.
Rambler acknowledges that Akron needs “to continue looking for other alternatives.”
According to Ohio Department of Education statistics, 21 students from the district and 1,733 statewide withdrew from school last year after being expelled.
Rambler stressed that expulsions are a last resort. But the state and federal government often mandate expulsions, forcing Akron and other districts to take a hard line on some offenses.
Akron’s student code of conduct is dissected into three categories.
The first section includes behaviors like profanity, dress code violations and possession of tobacco. These offenses call for corrective strategies like parental engagement, mentoring, detention or even out-of-school suspension. The next level includes more severe offenses, like smoking, possessing alcohol, theft or setting off a false alarm. These offenses mandate out-of-school suspension for up to 10 days.
Third-level offenses include bringing a gun or knife to school, selling drugs, starting a fire or assaulting a staff member. These offenses almost always trigger the expulsion process, with the potential to remove a student from school for up to 80 days.
The third-tier punishments often are mandated by federal “zero-tolerance” policies. While intended to shield students from violence, some question their effectiveness.
“I’m not sure that paranoia should drive policy,” said James Callen, an attorney with Northeast Ohio Legal Services. “The concept, I think, is misguided. You need to look at circumstances.”
Callen represents 100 to 150 students who face expulsion or suspension each year in an eight-county area that includes the Akron, Canton and Youngstown areas.
He said the majority of his clients exhibit some form of disability, whether emotionally disturbed, autistic or impaired by social factors such as harassment, bullying or poverty. They’re also getting into trouble for disruptive or disobedient — not violent — behavior.
When Callen receives a call from the parent of a disciplined child, he first sits down with the family to determine if the student has a disability. Then he contacts the school to review the student’s disciplinary record and any cognitive or behavioral assessments faculty might have performed.
Lastly, he defends the student at a hearing before the superintendent in an expulsion case or the principal in a suspension case.
Some districts, he said, exercise rationality when determining an appropriate punishment. Others directly follow “zero-tolerance” guidelines, expelling students for 10 or more days and depriving them of instruction.
“When applied in an iron-fisted rule, there is a higher risk of doing more harm than good,” Callen said of zero-tolerance rules.
He’s cautious of districts that “ignore the facts” and overexaggerate the severity of a student’s actions.
Still, one of the districts that Callen commends for its “common-sense” rulings is Akron Public Schools.
“I’ve had generally good experiences in cases dealing with Akron,” Callen said. “I’ve generally found their process and the hearing officers that they use to be pretty thoughtful and not just knee-jerk.”
Consequences of expulsion
What happens to students after they are removed from school is a concern for many advocates and researchers.
“The kid who gets the suspension or expulsion is three times as likely ... to be involved in the juvenile justice system in the following year,” said Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan organization that develops and promotes data-driven solutions for problems that intersect the legal system and other areas, like education.
Thompson cites what many consider to be the most comprehensive study that aimed to answer one question: What happens to a kid who receives discipline in school?
The 2011 report was cited by Deborah Delisle, former Ohio superintendent of instruction, before a U.S. Senate Judiciary hearing on ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The study analyzed the impacts of disciplinary actions for every seventh-grader in Texas and found that 60 percent of students who were disciplined more than 10 times did not graduate high school within two years of their expected graduation date.
Thompson has a simple hypothesis from the report: If school systems do a better job keeping students in the classroom and off the streets, then students would be less likely to get in trouble with the law.
“That is, at the end of the day, a hypothesis. That’s not something that we explored in the research. ... As stunning as the findings are in Texas, there’s no reason to believe that Texas is an outlier,” said Thompson, who added that Texas state law requires students to enter an alternative learning program, like Akron’s Saturn, if they are out of school for more than two consecutive days. But alternative programs are absent from most Ohio schools, especially those in smaller districts and charter schools.
Some districts have found a way to keep troubled students in the classroom “instead of suspending them to the street,” said Bill Miles, assistant superintendent for Cincinnati Public Schools.
A decade ago, Cincinnati reported more than 13,000 expulsions and out-of-school suspensions each year. Something had to change.
“I know we had a high rate,” Miles said. “So we did not want students to just continue to lose instruction.”
The district formed a comprehensive alternative program eight years ago and hasn’t reported a single expulsion since 2006. Cincinnati also reported the lowest disciplinary actions per pupil among Ohio’s eight largest urban districts.
Akron sits at the top of that list.
Miles credits his district’s A2S (Alternative to Suspension) and A2E (Alternative to Expulsion) programs for curbing the worst disciplinary statistics in the state.
At any given time in the school year, the programs cycle 150 students through an older building that was vacated when the district downsized. Rigorous attention is given to students’ behavior, along with instruction that could have been missed through suspension or expulsion.
Before returning to their respective school buildings, the district places all students on a transitional plan to sustain good behavior and to deter the kind of behavior that landed them in the program.
Akron’s Saturn program is similar in that it takes troubled students and allows them to stay in school. The district also hosts similar programs for students on an Individualized Education Plan (the Olympus program), students who have criminal records or who are on probation (the Phoenix program) and elementary students (the Strive program).
Now on her way to a high school diploma, Chandler plans to graduate in June. It’s something she hadn’t considered only three years ago, when she was given her second chance in Akron’s Saturn program.
She still struggles with some things.
“I believe I have a problem sitting in the classroom,” she said on her 20th birthday in December. “I think it’s just my personality.”
But that anxious personality that got her into trouble in the bustling classrooms of Garfield has been tamed by the Saturn program’s three-hour days and bare-bones curriculum. It has allowed her to “get my work done” and to say something she never thought she would:
“I’m going to college.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.