At some schools in New Orleans, six out ten students were suspended last school year.

The legislative mandate was simple – keep kids in school if at all possible, suspension and expulsion having been identified as a point of entry for the school-to-prison pipeline.

Passed in 2003, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act endorsed a wide variety of measures to reduce rates of juvenile incarceration. One such measure was support for in-school programs that reward students for good behavior rather than simply punishing them for acting out. It identified the state’s higher than average suspension and expulsion rates as a cause for concern.

But an examination of state records by The Lens shows that this decree hasn’t had the outcome legislators intended, at least not in New Orleans. In the nearly seven years since the law was passed, the out-of- school suspension rates – as high as 60 percent at some New Orleans schools – have remained largely unchanged.

Click here for a related story about the use of seclusion rooms at one New Orleans charter school.

Indeed, at Sojourner Truth Academy, the school with the highest rate in the city in the 2009-2010 school year, out-of-school suspensions have actually crept up in recent years. Students at Walter Cohen High School fare little better – the recent rate for that school was 47 percent. John McDonogh Senior High School is now at 45 percent.

Few educators deny that disruptive behavior had pushed some New Orleans public schools to the verge of anarchy and that even at more manageable levels, it can impair the learning opportunities for better behaved children.

But the persistence of high suspension rates points not only to the failure of the state’s push to incentivize good behavior, it has renewed questions that critics and proponents of high push-out rates have debated for years: at what point does the disruptiveness of classroom troublemakers outweigh the value of trying to keep them in school? And just what does a student have to do be labeled a troublemaker?

While earlier studies have broken down suspension rates by school district, The Lens has classified this data by individual New Orleans schools. And we’ve tracked data back to 2002, so readers can see how rates have changed – if they have – since the state law was passed.  We’ve also obtained copies of these schools’ discipline policies, to show links between high rates and a school’s behavioral expectations:

Click here for an Excel spreadsheet with a complete list of schools, and their suspension rates from 2002 through last year. 

Of the 78 schools that gave us their discipline policies, nearly 90 percent claim to have implemented rewards programs for good behavior. Sojourner Truth uses a Truth Bucks incentive program, in which kids get points for arriving on time, excelling academically, and the like. Students with lots of points become eligible for field trips and other rewards. Administrators at the school did not return calls seeking to understand why the school’s suspension rate was so high.

Walter Cohen and John McDonogh adhere to the Recovery School District’s uniform code of conduct, which offers incentives for good behavior and also embraces strategies associated with the philosophy of “restorative justice.” Students, for example, may be required to meet with those he or she has harmed and work out a means of redress. In addition students sign behavior contracts, with clear expectations.

So why are their rates so high?

Different groups have different opinions. Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, says the value of positive behavior support has been proven time and again. The problem, he says, is that some schools pay lip service to the idea, but don’t put it into practice.

“Positive behavior interventions and support (PBIS) has a national database of impressive significance in reducing rates of office disciplinary referrals (ODRs), including suspensions both in-school and out-of-school,” Sailor wrote in an email to The Lens. “I suspect that if ODRs are not substantially decreasing then the problem lies in implementation of PBIS with procedural integrity (i.e., fidelity).”

Sailor said New Orleans’ uniquely complex administrative structure – with a majority of charter schools in addition to those run directly by the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board – might explain inconsistencies in how positive behavior programs are being implemented.

State monitoring of the programs has indeed been lax. According to findings from a 2008 Department of Education internal audit: “Management has not implemented a comprehensive plan to monitor and evaluate PBS adequately. Instead, partial monitoring is performed sporadically.”

During the period examined in DOE audit, the state largely used third parties, such as Louisiana State University’s positive behavior support training and resources program, to gauge school participation. After the audit found that only 25 percent of schools that claimed to have used the program actually did so, the state agreed to get more active in the project, and to hold third parties like LSU to stricter reporting standards.

A state spokeswoman said Friday that since the audit, the Education Department has taken over the bulk of monitoring. In addition to other measures, the department does its own analysis of suspension and expulsion rates to determine if the programs have been working in each region. It also now makes on-site visits to schools to see the programs in action.

Another factor in high suspension and expulsion rates is the myriad disciplinary rules followed by New Orleans schools. A 2010 study of New Orleans schools by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and Friends and Families of Incarcerated Children found that schools, particularly RSD schools, suspended kids regularly for minor offenses.

While 42 percent of suspensions were for “disruptive or disrespectful” behavior, 12 percent were for being late to class or school. “Categories like disruptive behavior or willful disobedience are very broad and vague,” the study said.

Schools in The Lens survey that incentivize good behavior, also punish minor infractions, such as repeated dress-code violations, with suspension. In more than 70 percent of schools that practice positive behavior support, dress code infractions lead to demerits or detentions, which if chronic, can lead to suspension, in or out of school. In two other schools, Sojourner Truth and Andrew Wilson Charter School, dress code violations lead to students being sent home for the day – which still equates to less time spent learning. Still other schools punish big for other nuances of non-compliance. New Orleans College Prep’s gamut of rules requires students to maintain eye contact with the teacher and forbids profanity and failure to hold a door open for the person next in line.

School leaders say refusing to tolerate even small infractions sets a no-nonsense tone for students from the get-go.

“We have high expectations for our children to achieve at the highest levels,” Ben Kleban, New Orleans College Preparatory School principal and chief executive officer, said in an emailed statement. “Strict and consistent consequences for misbehavior, combined with extensive positive incentives and rewards, help children learn the limits of what’s acceptable in an environment of higher learning and how to be most successful in the classroom – ultimately preparing them for college.”

Strict discipline is not unique to New Orleans. Billionaire investor George Soros’s Open Society Institute, which also partially funds The Lens, has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit aimed at ending harsh discipline in Baltimore public schools.

The suspension rate has been reduced to 8 percent but there is still work to be done, said Kiera Edwards, an OSI program associate for education and youth development. Baltimore school leaders, like those in New Orleans, don’t take kindly to uniform violations: “One of the biggest things that we’re working on with our system is the uniform policy,” she said.  “Teachers are allowed to give a demerit or detention for things like dress code, which can eventually lead to a high number of suspensions.”

OSI, like many groups concerned by high suspension and expulsion rates, is enthusiastic about programs built around positive behavior support.

But skeptics caution that it’s not the answer for every child; indeed, no one-size-fits-all discipline policy can be expected to work across the board.

“I don’t think there is any one system or methodology that is going to be a silver bullet – there’s so many different factors involved,” says Lee Barrios, a former St. Tammany Parish teacher who is running for a District 1 seat this fall on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “PBS may work in one situation for one child, but not in every case…so many things can affect a child’s behavior.”

No matter what the reason for high rates, what’s particularly troubling to educators like Barrios is the 27 schools directly run by or chartered under the RSD in which more than 15 percent of students – about twice the national average – were suspended. Because this group largely consists of the once-academically failing schools that the state seized after Hurricane Katrina, the paradox here is that the students farthest behind in their school work – and thus most in need of staying in class – are often the first to be suspended under strict disciplinary regimes.

In examining discipline efforts, The Lens chose to focus on out of school suspensions, which tend to affect a greater number of students, tend to be left up to the disciplinarian’s discretion, and which lead to kids spending the most time out of school. The out-of-school expulsion rates we encountered for each school were much lower – under 1 percent, for most schools – and we didn’t use data for in school suspensions and in school expulsions because students are physically in school while these are taking place.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...