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Foul, or Felony? It’s our call.

By Michelle Hughes, Executive Director

If a 16-year old high school basketball player mouths off at a referee during a game, perhaps balling up his fist at the same time, he will likely get a technical foul called on him. Depending on the situation, he could get thrown out of the game. We have all seen it happen.

If the same player shows the same behavior to a teacher in a classroom more than once, he could get nailed with felony charges and end up in court, under a bill that passed the Senate last week. It has gone to the House for consideration, and we hope it will have a long time to cool off on the bench.

The bill, S343, would make “assault on school personnel” (which can be verbal, with no physical contact) a felony after the first offense, no matter what the circumstances.  And while the goal of the bill is to make schools safer, there’s no evidence that it would improve either student behavior or education.

It is already against the law to assault school personnel (and other categories of officials) and it can be a felony if there’s bodily harm. The law, and the unevenly applied law enforcement system, are not enough to turn our schools into safe, peaceful places for learning for students and teachers.

For a more effective approach, look at high school coaches and sports.

Our high school sports system teaches young athletes to channel their frustrations and anger in appropriate ways through coaching, instruction, and practicing good sportsmanship under intense competition.  Any coach can tell you that knowing how to handle intense emotion is taught, not inborn.  The brains of 16- and 17-year olds are not fully developed, and some of the last functions to fully develop are interaction skills involving emotion.

Any coach can also tell you that losing playing time and keeping the esteem of fellow players and students can make a tremendous behavior reinforcement system for good. The parameters of acceptable behavior are pretty well agreed on by the whole school, the consequences are immediate, and a sincere player who screws up can usually, eventually, work his or her way back into the coach’s good graces. The offending student athlete is never outside the school’s cultural framework, so there’s no escaping future scrutiny or behavior reinforcement.

The sports behavior system helps young athletes develop the personality skills that will not only let them play sports successfully, but will help them succeed in higher education and the workplace.

Like the coach’s office, a good solution to classroom behavior problems is right under our noses. It’s been quietly growing and working in North Carolina for more than 10 years. It’s called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, and it operates a little like the sports approach– clearly defining acceptable behavior, creating a school-wide climate of personal accountability, and providing consistent, trained coaching and reinforcement (including consequences) agreed on and enforced by all school personnel.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky. North Carolina had 1,210 schools participating in the PBIS initiative during the 2013-2014 school year.  That’s 108 schools more than the previous year and represents 45% of the state’s 2,685 schools. The US Department of Education provides funding for training and other support to help states apply this methodology.

The schools that are using the program are getting better at it, and the impact ranges from teachers feeling safer in schools, to increased graduation rates, to improved performance on end-of-grade tests. Some schools report that double-digit days of time are saved each year as they reduce the amount of classroom and administrator time needed to handle discipline problems. That’s more time for learning. (The Department of Public Instruction keeps basic data on the program, and local schools track other measures, but not all measures are tracked by every school.)

Here’s the problem: adopting PBIS is a school-by-school decision, and not even half of the state’s schools have decided to use this approach. The Legislature ought to take some time to figure out how to help more schools use this approach. Experts at UNC and other research institutions are studying PBIS and learning more about what it takes to be successful.

In the meantime, sending school behavior problems to adult court is not logical or effective. And it’s not fair for students in one school to have a program that teaches them how to behave their best, while other students in the same county have no behavioral coaching outside the locker room or the occasional counselor’s conversation.

In a recent report, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity showed North Carolina is already 12th highest in the nation in using the courts to resolve school behavior problems. Even worse is the apparent inequity between treatment of black and white students. While black students are a little more than a fourth of the student population, they make up more than 38 percent of all referrals to court. White students are more than half the schools’ population, but are just 39.5 percent of the court referrals.

We know adult courts are not the most effective way to change behavior in half-grown people.

North Carolina can, and should, do better.


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