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Student-Discipline Debate Surfaces in Fresno

UPDATED

CORRECTED

Fresno teachers have proposed contract language underscoring teachers' right to call the police immediately if they're "attacked, assaulted, or physically threatened by a student."

Over the last year, several high-profile incidents of teachers being attacked by students have raised concerns about school safety. Under the district's current contract, incidents of assault are to be reported to the teacher's supervisor within 24 hours, and supervisors must follow up with law enforcement.

Union officials said their proposed language on police makes clear that teachers, like other citizens, have the right to call the police when they feel threatened. They allege that the district discourages teachers from reporting such incidents.

District and union are in mediation over contract issues, mostly traditional ones such as wages, benefits, and class sizes.

On the issue of law enforcement, the district's "last, best, and final" contract offer lies somewhere between the union's new proposal and the old contract. It says that teachers should immediately inform their supervisors about violent incidents, and supervisors and teachers together should notify the police.

It is unclear whether the union's proposed language is common or not; there is no national public repository comparing safety and discipline language from contract to contract. But it is notable, given the distrust many communities of color have about law enforcement. In 2015-16, Fresno's student population was more that two-thirds Latino. 8 percent of students are black, and about 10 percent are white.

DISCIPLINE CONCERNS

The effort to include new police-reporting language in the contract comes at a time when the district is experiencing some debate over its restorative-justice student discipline program.

In 2014, Fresno was among the first in the state to adopt restorative justice practices, an approach to school discipline where students are asked to reflect on their behavior and come up with ways to repair the harm their actions have caused.

Fresno officials have touted lower suspension and discipline rates under the program. But teachers have raised concerns about how well the program is working, and whether educators have had enough training.

The Fresno Teachers Association doesn't oppose restorative justice; its "last, best, and final" bargaining offer with the district makes recommendations for building trust in the process and hiring mental-health officials to improve it in schools.

Some district officials say that teachers need to give the reforms more time to take hold.

"Restorative justice is not a curriculum where you say, 'Here's a book and this is what we're doing.' It's something that is fully integrated, and it takes all the staff to be a part of it and to buy in," Fresno Unified Trustee Christopher De La Cerda told The Bee. "It's going to continue to mold itself and grow, and we have to adjust it with each school. If we don't nurture it, it's going to die."

But other Fresno officials, including school board President Carol Mills and Trustee Brooke Ashjian, agree that the approach needs work.

"What we hear a lot is (schools) do nothing. We send them to the office, they come back," the Bee quoted Brooke Ashjian as saying. "What it does is demoralize the teacher, and pretty soon he or she is like, 'Why am I doing this?' We've got to get our hands around student behavior and give an expectation of what we're going to tolerate and what we're not."

The Fresno situation has echoes for other communities, such as St. Paul., Minn., where teachers have criticized how restorative justice programs have been implemented. It could also potentially put teachers in a delicate position with social-justice groups, who note that traditional discipline practices like suspensions and detention disproportionately affect students of color.

CONTRACT TALKS

The contract's future is uncertain: District and union have been negotiating for months and are headed to formal mediation. And importantly, negotiations have foundered on typical issues of class sizes, health care, and wages, not just social-emotional issues or discipline.

"This morning, Fresno Unified failed their students and teachers by choosing to ignore key issues in bargaining, including class size, special education and safety and discipline," Tish Rice, the president of the Fresno Teachers Association--an affiliate of the National Education Association--told The Fresno Bee in early June after the last failed bargaining session.

Correction

A previous version of this post mischaracterized the union's view of restorative-justice programs. The union supports them.


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