Woodland Hills schools will be part of national effort to reduce school suspensions, expulsions

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Through the past year, Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson has worked to reduce the number of suspensions given to students by lessening the zero tolerance response to discipline in his district.

That effort gained him national attention, and as a result, it was announced Thursday that Woodland Hills is one of 10 school districts around the nation selected to participate in a public-private partnership initiative to explore discipline alternatives to suspension and expulsion. The initiative is a partnership between the American Association of Administrators, a nationwide superintendents group, and the Children's Defense Fund and is being funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

"The focus is very specific: That is dealing with the issue of the disparate outcomes of education that results from these lopsided disciplinary statistics particularly when you look at African-American males in schools," Mr. Johnson said.

The announcement follows the release earlier this month of guidelines from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice on how to reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions and to make sure discipline is doled out uniformly among students regardless of race. The departments performed studies that show African-American and Hispanic students were more likely to receive suspensions or expulsions than white students for the same offenses.

"It's really an honor to be associated with two organizations (AASA and CDF) like this and have them recognize that of all the districts across the country that we really want to do something about our issues here," Mr. Johnson said. "We genuinely want to make a difference in our kids' lives this way."

Last school year, 19 of the 20 expulsions in Woodland Hills were issued to black male students, as were 90 percent of the more than 2,400 suspensions, according to statistics reported to the state Department of Education.

One other Pennsylvania district is included, the Harrisburg School District. The others are in Texas, South Carolina, California, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Mr. Johnson said being included in the initiative will not bring the district substantial funds.

But it will provide the district with "lots of expertise that we don't have" regarding cutting-edge research and model discipline policies that revolve around restorative justice and trauma-informed care rather than zero tolerance.

"They have experts in policy and policy development and some of the very best minds in civil rights and civil rights attorneys that will provide us advice," Mr. Johnson.

With zero tolerance policies, students are automatically suspended or expelled for certain offenses. With restorative justice practices, Mr. Johnson said, punishment is still issued to offenders, but school officials also work to get at the root of the problem that caused the offensive behavior and work to prevent it from happening again. He stressed there will still be zero tolerance for serious offenses, such as bringing a weapon to school.

With trauma-informed care, school officials will be trained to understand the traumas experienced in students' lives that may cause them to act out.

Mr. Johnson said he plans to use the resources of the CDF and AASA to rewrite the discipline policies and code of conduct for his district, which have not been changed since 1984, shortly after the merged district was formed. He's hoping to have that accomplished by spring and that they will serve as a national model.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published January 23, 2014 11:51 AM

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