Kalispell schools taking team approach to student discipline

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Kalispell Public Schools, law enforcement officers, social workers, counselors and the Center for Restorative Youth Justice have teamed up to share their expertise in revising the approach to student discipline and addressing behavioral concerns of at-risk youth.

The work will be part of a capstone project, which came out of an intensive week of training in the School-Justice Partnerships Certificate Program at Georgetown University.

In September, the Kalispell group was one of eight teams selected out of 48 applicants from around the nation to attend the program in Washington, D.C. The program’s aim is to help communities “address the immediate and long-term needs of students known to, or at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system,” according to the Georgetown Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the goal being “to promote an ongoing engagement in school among youth at risk, re-engage students who have been disconnected, and improve academic outcomes for all.” The focus was also placed on supporting and training school staff to manage student behavior in positive ways and keep them engaged in school.

Students at risk of negative life outcomes may have histories of behavioral problems stemming from trauma or poverty, special education needs, placement in foster care or involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Three members of the Georgetown team met at Kalispell Public Schools central office on Oct. 19 to talk about the program. Team members included Dave Bailon, Youth Justice Advisory Council vice chairman for the Montana Board of Crime Control and a member Center for Restorative Youth Justice board; Mark Flatau, Kalispell Public Schools superintendent; and Shareen Springer, Center for Restorative Youth Justice executive director.

“I will be very honest, one reaction that we could have said is, you know what, we’re Kalispell. We’re doing well. Our achievement scores are some of the highest in the state. We have good kids. All that’s true, but we could get better in serving every kid that walks through our doors and more opportunities to encourage them to stay in school to be engaged and to learn on the academic as well as a behavioral side,” Flatau said.

“Unfortunately we have a growing segment of our student body of kids who are coming to us with severe emotional behaviors and we cannot abandon them. We have to bring to the table all the resources and that’s what the SOARS (Support, Outreach and Access for the Resiliency of Students) grant is about and other grants we have pursued and received. We’re looking at bringing in more resources that we desperately need to serve these kids. I think a start of a process that will drive out a better end result,” he said.

The team is tasked with completing a capstone project to “initiate or continue information sharing reform efforts.” Flatau said the agencies involved are in the data collection and research process.

“How many kids in the justice system are also in foster care? We’ll be looking at those points of overlap so that we as a community be more informed,” Springer said. “A lot of times we can be working with the same kids. The school might not know a child is engaged in the justice system or in out-of-home placement, or a youth home.”

WHAT THE project will look like and how it will serve youth has yet to be developed, but there is a framework.

“We’re talking about creating a code of conduct and K-12 discipline guidelines,” Flatau said, noting that any efforts will align with other school climate initiatives such as the Montana Behavioral Initiative part of a national Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support program.

Flatau said there are sophisticated interventions and programs to address academics and help students overcome learning challenges, but questions why such programs don’t also exist for behavior.

“Why is behavior any different? Behavior is no different. We know that kids are going to make mistakes when it comes to choices and decisions. How we respond is going to make all the difference. We either get frustrated or we continue to look for ways to engage kids, give them additional tools in their toolbox on how to cope next time and manage that behavior,” Flatau said.

“Certainly academic performance is paramount to our work, but the behavior aspect also important,” he said. “We’re educating the whole child — how kids should be treating one another — and being more intentional how we ensure kids are behaving according to expectations that we have.”

The reason the members cover the spectrum of school district to juvenile justice system is that the agencies have the same aim: keep students engaged, in school, and out of the justice system, resulting in positive life outcomes.

“In the justice world I think all of us would say the number one prevention that we see as the biggest life changer for kids is access to education,” Springer said. “So from a justice angle our ultimate goal is to keep kids out of the justice system, and that leads us back to schools and, like you said, parenting.”

Students at risk of dropping out may be inclined to do so when suspended or expelled, which sets them behind academically and potentially even more so behaviorally.

“When they’re not in school there’s space and time to do other things that can sometimes lead to criminal activity, so we have been talking to schools working with administrators,” Springer said.

Does it mean suspensions or expulsions will go away? Probably not, but they will be used minimally, according to Flatau.

“I know that when a kid is suspended his or her return to classroom immediately is not always appropriate — but how can we keep that kid engaged in the school in their learning so when they return to school they are better equipped from a decision making standpoint,” Flatau said. “Let’s say we suspend a student three days. Nothing in that three-day period is necessarily going to connect that kid to come back a better-behaved student.”

The old adage that it takes a community to raise a child may be true.

“I think we put a lot of pressures on our schools to solve a lot of things and so there’s huge pressure on teachers to fill in for some of these kids that really have high needs,” Springer said. “I see it not just as a school issue or the justice system issue I think that it’s a invitation for services like CRYJ and other mental health programs around the valley to be available to schools to those kids to help address some of those concerns and the realities of their lives so that school can be a priority for them.”

The team will have mentors and continued assistance from the School-Justice Partnerships Certificate Program as they work on the capstone project.

“What we are experiencing is an awakening of sorts based on all kinds of different research — justice research, education research, mental health research regarding children that what we’re doing is responding to this research with a partnership that’s what Georgetown was about — that partnership,” Bailon said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Other team members include Kate Berry, Center for Restorative Youth Justice school engagement coordinator; Cassi Carr, probation officer and Flathead High School/Linderman Education Center liaison; Cory Clarke, Flathead High School resource officer; Nicole Roth, school-based social worker with Montana Support, Outreach and Access for the Resiliency of Students Kalispell; and Lisa Wolfe, Flathead guidance counselor.

Reporter Hilary Matheson can be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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