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Suspension Rates at a Washington School Drop 85%: Does Kindness Play a Role?

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If you haven't heard about Jim Sporleder, high school principal at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, you soon will. Lincoln High is an alternative school -- a school of last resort some might say -- where many of the students have come from other schools where they had been expelled. A high proportion of the students have had Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), traumatic events involving emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Despite these situations, Sporleder and his staff achieved an 85% drop in the suspension rate at Lincoln High.

They didn't lower suspension rates by administering sedatives, threatening expulsion, or bringing in a wrestler with muscles the size of Seattle. His staff didn't hire a police task force or military recruiters.

Instead, according to an article that emerged in April on the blog "ACEs Too High," Sporleder, inspired by research on the human brain, instituted a policy where students are encouraged to actually discuss their issues when disciplinary problems occur.

Lincoln High's approach has gone viral, and it's little surprise. Take Sporleder's approach with a student that used the F-word in class and was sent to his office: "Wow. Are you OK? This doesn't sound like you. What's going on?" The student, prepared to defend himself to avoid punishment, was caught by surprise by such empathetic treatment. The student's defenses melted in the face of the principal's care and compassion.

Sporleder's is the sort of approach that some would consider "too soft," but at Lincoln High School, it turns out that encouraging students to talk about what's actually going on for them produces positive results and keeps kids in school. Before Sporleder implemented this approach, Lincoln High had 798 suspensions a year. Post implementation, the number of suspensions had fallen to 135. While suspension rates in public schools in the United States have increased dramatically since the 1970s, at Lincoln High, suspension rates have been rapidly decreasing. This is news. Shouldn't this be a front page story in newspapers everywhere?

This is a story of hope for those who have been concerned about how troubled students are handled in public schools, and one that underlines the importance of social and emotional learning. When children better understand their emotions, are given a safe environment in which to express them, and a vocabulary to describe them, they thrive.

Students' reactive behaviors are reduced when they are treated with kindness and encouraged to talk about their troubles. In the Lincoln High example, the student shared that there was an alcohol problem in his family and that promises were rarely kept. After speaking with the principal, the student came to a greater awareness that blowing up at a teacher was not in his best interest. When the student left the principal's office, he returned to the classroom and apologized to the teacher. The student was still required to go to in-school suspension, but at Lincoln High, that's a room where they can catch up on their schoolwork, receive counseling, or simply take time to reflect.

While suspension rates in the United States have risen steadily since the 1970s, there remains little to no evidence that zero-tolerance discipline policies such as suspension and expulsion improve school safety or student achievement. Teachers and administrators, faced with increasing behavioral problems, are doing their best to provide safe school environments -- but neurological evidence is now emerging that any type of punishment leveled at students makes it nearly impossible for them to learn -- and can actually exacerbate trauma.

Especially for students who have already endured a lifetime of complex trauma, traditional punishment and discipline activate a "fight, flight or freeze" response. When a trauma response is activated, the brain actually cannot absorb new information -- the punishment fails to have the desired effect, and the student is prone to repeat the undesirable behavior.

At Lincoln High, students are encouraged to discuss their issues and are given tools to safely express their emotions and "build their resilience" to ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). Teachers at the school are also trained in how to look at students in terms of their needs and the experiences they've gone through rather than as deserving of punishment. This approach has nurtured a surprising environment of love and openness in his school among teachers and students.

I was so encouraged to see evidence of measurable results from a social and emotional learning approach that I contacted Sporleder directly. We began to correspond, and it was even more evident to me that his commitment to his teachers and students just might make him a new role model for administrators everywhere. In adopting this way of working with students, he now sees that empathetic connection should be the norm. For Walla Walla's schools, it may soon be. There is now talk of rolling out his approach in larger schools in the district. This could be a giant step toward convincing those in education that social and emotional learning has a place in their curricula. With the rising suspension rates, we can only hope that empathetic approaches to discipline become widespread.

Food for thought: we spend 12 years in school preparing for a career, how much time do we spend preparing for a relationship? Lincoln High School is giving students an opportunity to experience the kind of healthy relationships that perhaps some of them never had. Let's keep that momentum going.

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