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Fourth-grade students wait in the hallway at Stevens Elementary School in Wheat Ridge.

Fourth-grade students wait in the hallway at Stevens Elementary School in Wheat Ridge.

From dozens of suspensions to one: How this Colorado school stopped removing young children

It started with name-calling in music class. Then one second-grade boy shoved another.

In years past, the two might have been sent to the principal’s office at Stevens Elementary School in the the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge, but not this year.

Instead, a call went out on the school’s walkie-talkie system — “SEL to music,” shorthand for social-emotional learning help needed in the music room. Desiree Mericle, the school’s dean of students, responded, escorting the boys to her office so they could talk out their conflict in the “restorative conference” corner. They were back in class, and friends again, about 15 minutes later.

The scene illustrates the school’s changing approach to discipline and reflects a broader effort in the 85,000-student Jeffco district to reduce out-of-school suspensions, especially for young students. Such discipline reform initiatives, already established or unfolding in some Colorado districts, could soon spread with a new law limiting suspensions of young children. The bill, already approved by the Colorado House and Senate, now heads to Gov. Jared Polis’s desk for a signature.

Jeffco’s push to examine discipline practices in the early elementary grades began shortly after Superintendent Jason Glass took the helm in July 2017. During the previous school year, district schools gave out 713 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students, the equivalent of four every school day.

After a variety of changes, K-2 suspensions dropped to 413 last year — a decrease of more than 40 percent. The changes included training educators in restorative practices and adding staff to teach social-emotional skills such as self control and conflict resolution.

Jen Gallegos, who became the district’s manager of student discipline in 2017 after the job had been vacant for years because of budget constraints, hopes the number of out-of-school suspensions continues trending downward.

Advocates who oppose early childhood suspension say it doesn’t work to change children’s behavior, increases the likelihood of future suspensions, and disproportionately affects boys, students of color, and those with disabilities.

Gallegos said district leaders have tried to shift away from the idea that discipline is punitive and instead view it as an opportunity “to provide instruction, repair harm, and teach students to reflect.”

“When humans act out they’re acting out for a reason,” she said. “It’s really trying to understand why the behavior is happening [and] making sure that you can address that ‘why’ as much as possible.”

When TJ McManus became the principal of Stevens nearly two years ago, she prioritized two things: creating a safe school and strong culture. She also sought to cut suspensions by half — a goal included in the school’s state-mandated improvement plan.

In 2016-17, before McManus took the helm, 100 out-of-school suspensions were given out schoolwide, 26 of those to kindergarten through second-grade students, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. That’s a K-2 rate of 16 suspensions per 100 students.

Last year, there were 32 out-of-school suspensions schoolwide, only one given to an early elementary student — for a K-2 suspension rate of less than 1 suspension per 100 students.

(As out-of-school suspension have dropped at Stevens, in-school suspensions have increased somewhat, but only slightly for younger students.)

McManus, who routinely greets students with the sign language sign for love, said the discipline revamp at Stevens has many layers — schedule changes, new hires, teacher training on brain science and the effects of trauma on children, and an end to practices such as taking away recess when kids misbehave.

The goal is happier kids who spend more time learning.

“We felt strongly that behavior was keeping our kids from performing to the best of their ability,” McManus said. “So, a lot of these strategies are because we know it will result in academic performance.”

Only about 12 percent of students met or exceeded state expectations last year on state math and literacy tests. The 281-student school, where more than three-quarters of students qualify for subsidized meals, includes programs for students with autism and a gifted and talented center.

As part of the effort to transform culture, behavior and discipline, Stevens students now start the morning with a schoolwide meeting followed by a “morning circle” in their classrooms. There’s also a mindfulness break after lunch and a “closing circle” at the end of the day. In other words, students spend at least an hour a day on skills like building relationships and talking or thinking about their emotions.

On a recent Friday morning, “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons played as students gathered in the music room for their morning meeting. Three students led the assembly, heading up a recitation of the school’s creed and inviting fellow students to share “good things” and talk about how they planned to persevere in math.

A bit later, in Amanda Ophaug’s fourth-grade classroom, students sat in a circle on the carpet by the windows. After a round of handshakes, each said a number representing his or her mood, with five being the best and zero being the worst. Lots of students were fours and fives, excited about Easter festivities or after-school video game sessions. But a few were struggling. One girl quietly explained that she’d just moved to a new foster home, then put her head on her knees and cried.

As the circle disbanded, Ophaug calmly acknowledged the girl’s sadness and told the class, “We’re all going to be very supportive of her.”

And they were. No one stared or reacted with surprise. Soon, the girl’s tears had dried and, though she was still glum, she started an online activity with a classmate.

Several students said they like learning more about their classmates during morning circle. Ten-year-old Dan said when peers get upset, he tries to give them space.

“Keep in your bubble … Don’t bother them,” he said.

Stevens has an impressive number of staff members who focus on student mental health and behavior, including a full-time social worker, mental health counselor, restorative practice liaison, and dean of students. There’s also a half-time social-emotional learning specialist and three social work interns. While the interns are free, the rest of the staff is paid for through grants, district funds, or dollars from the school budget.

While some Colorado educators have argued against early childhood discipline legislation, saying schools lack sufficient mental health staff to handle misbehaving students, McManus said Stevens is well-equipped for the work.

“I feel like building-wide we don’t have pushback from staff,” she said “I think originally it was just an adjustment to understand the why behind restorative practices and the why behind social-emotional learning … then they fully embraced it.”

There have been shifts for students, too. When classmates tangle, adults don’t simply dole out consequences. Students — with coaching — play a big role in deciding how to make amends, which is part of the restorative practice approach. They’re not forced to say “sorry,” though they can if they want. And the victim doesn’t have to excuse the transgression by saying “It’s OK,” or vowing to remain friends with the aggressor.

The idea is that both sides get a voice in the resolution.

Mericle, who intervened with the two second-graders in music class, said the school’s younger students have adapted to the new process a bit easier than their upper-elementary peers, more readily putting their new skills to use.

One of the boys in the music class altercation, she said, acknowledged his part, saying, “Sometimes I get angry and I need to remember my deep breathing.”