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Teachers' Union Leaders Question New Student-Discipline Policies

Across the country, states and school districts have been revamping student-disciplinary codes to address gnawing racial disparities in how students are disciplined. Suspensions and expulsions are out, while so-called restorative justice practices like peer mediation are in.

But in recent weeks, some teachers' union leaders have come forward to protest that, while they support these new approaches in principle, teachers just aren't getting the training and support they need to control their classes without resorting to suspensions.

Just about a year after the Indianapolis school district implemented a new code that aims to curb student suspensions, for example, the results of a survey by the district's teachers union underscores educators' discomfort.

The unscientific online poll of Indianapolis Education Association members, which got responses from 274 teachers or 13 percent of the district's teaching force, found that over six in ten teachers felt like they hadn't received enough information about the new discipline policy. Additionally, 61 percent felt like they hadn't gotten enough training on the district's new Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports system, or PBIS. A year into the new discipline code, 41 percent of teachers said that they didn't feel supported when dealing with student-behavior problems.

"We've got a lot of teachers that don't know what's going on," union president Rhondalyn Cornett told education news website, Chalkbeat. "I think that some schools probably are doing a good job, but all the schools need to be doing a good job."

Michael Mulgrew, the president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City's educators, laid out a similar position in an editorial in the New York Daily News.

"Too often, Tweed adopts policies without understanding how they will play out in schools and then ignores its responsibility for turning policy into reality," wrote Mulgrew referring to the city's department of education, which is housed at Tweed Courthouse. "Past promises for training and support have not arrived at many schools."

The piece was in response to yet another move by the city to limit suspensions, this time banning them entirely for students in grades K-2.

Mulgrew outlined several ways the district could help educators, including training staff on how to de-escalate students in crises and mandating that schools form pupil personnel teams to work with students having behavioral issues.

"The 'zero tolerance' policies of the previous administration clearly did not work," Mulgrew wrote referring to Mayor Mike Bloomberg's tenure. "They never led to a nurturing school culture or even-handed discipline. At the same time, a 180-degree pivot banning suspensions makes no sense."

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