By Jim Tortolano
It’s 1967. Bobby has been sent to the vice principal’s office for fighting. The veep is a burly ex-football coach with a stiff brush haircut and bulging muscles in a tight dress shirt. He leans forward across his desk and growls, “So you’re the big man who’s giving everyone a hard time.”
Now it’s 2017. Josh is in that same office, only instead of the intimidating administrator, he’s sitting next to a concerned educator who asks five crucial questions. “What happened? What were you thinking? What have you thought about since? Who has been hurt? What can you do to make things right?”
That’s the distance that’s been traveled in how many public schools are now handling disciplinary issues. One of those leading the way to a less punitive approach to student misconduct is Arthur Cummins, student services director for the Garden Grove Unified School District.
Cummins was recently honored as a recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Safe School Educator award for “innovation and leadership” in his field. His range of duties for the GGUSD includes everything from student discipline and mental health to training in the event of a crisis such as an earthquake or active shooter.
“Anything that’s not academic that’s happening at the district usually falls under the umbrella of student services,” said Cummins, 54, a resident of Orange Hills, and a career educator.
He is a strong advocate for “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” a framework which uses approaches and practices which are intended to help identify issues which may interfere with a pupil’s ability to learn.
“In the old classroom,” said Cummins, “here are the old rules. No this, no this, no this. In the new PBIS application, we have student-wide expectations. Be to class on time every day. Do the very best you can. Be kind to others. These are the things we want to see in kids, not the things we want to extinguish in kids.”
Accentuating the positive, and reinforcing that with rewards – ribbons, tags, extra time at lunch or break – can be more effective in getting the desired behavior, Cummins believes. One standard is to seek to give seven positive incentives or praise for every one negative. The intent is to reduce the number of kids sent to the office for discipline.
“The fewer kids that get sent to the office, the fewer suspensions and the fewer significant events that lead to expulsion,” said Cummins. “If there’s less inappropriate behavior, the climate of the school will feel and be safer.”
Under PBIS, teachers will seek to identify issues with students, determining who may be struggling with mental health issues. “What comes up every time, every time, is three things,” said Cummins. “The impact of poverty, exposure to violence and trauma, alcohol and drugs.”
Those kids would be referred to an on-campus PBIS team which will seek to determine which are the underlying issues with Josh or Janine.
Tied in with that is the concept of restorative practice, which seeks to substitute a problem-solving approach for the previous punishment models. A more therapeutic approach is encouraged. While there are still consequences for actions, the emphasis is on reducing those which drive kids out of school.
“If every teacher knew the cold hard facts that the school-to-prison pipeline begins with suspension and expulsion, then we might make other decisions,” said Cummins. “Any kid who gets suspended at any time in the K-12 career is three times as likely not finish high school. Any kid who is suspended twice or more is five times more likely to not finish high school.”
In the GGUSD, expulsions have dropped from an average of 45 to 47 a year to 30. “Why? Because we introduced those five questions.”