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Program Changes Culture of School Discipline

Jill Ament
Members of Lori Palladino's Student Court Room at University High

Four years ago Waco ISD piloted a program to try and reduce the number of referrals and suspensions of students. It’s called suspending kids to school. The district says this effort has helped keep kids in class and out of the court system—and it’s helped some schools change the entire way they look at discipline. KWBU’s Jill Ament has this report on University High’s student court, where students have a say in the disciplinary process.

Student court in Lori Palladino’s Criminal Justice class at University High School isn’t much different than a real court… except that it’s in a classroom… and 17 and 18 year olds are running the show. One student presides as a judge. Six other students make up the jury. Ms. Palladino silently oversees the trial from the back of the classroom. 

Student court is just a piece of a larger program at Waco ISD called the Suspending Kids to School Initiative. Since 2011 the district has received nearly a million dollars in grant funding from the state to keep students from getting excessive tickets for minor offenses or behavioral issues. 

Usually the cases are real. But because of confidentiality -- you’re listening to a mock trial. Here’s the scenario:  David is a senior at University High. He and a classmate were at lunch after sports and got into an argument in the cafeteria. That argument escalated. The classmate knocked David’s tray out of his hands. David retaliated by slapping the classmate across the face.

After the defendant explains his story – the jury responds with a series of questions:

Juror #1: Do you think that slapping that boy was worth it? David: Now I don’t. Juror #5: Do you have any brothers and sisters? David: Yes. Juror #5: Did they hear about the altercation? David: Yes. Juror #5: And how do you think they feel? David: Probably like they can do it too.

Questioning ends and the student jury heads into deliberation. When they return -- they dish out the consequences. Not the teachers. Not the administrators. 

We the peer jury of University High School issue the following sanctions to hold the respondent accountable and to repair the harm that was caused.

David’s punishment isn’t light. He’s given six hours of community service. He’s asked to write a letter of apology to the person he slapped and to his coach. His attendance must be spotless and his grades must improve. The jury also tells David he can’t receive any more discipline referrals. All of this must be maintained within a 40-day period after court. Otherwise – David will be suspended or sent to an alternative campus.

Charlene Hamilton is the director of the Suspending Kids to School initiative. She said back then Waco ISD was issuing a lot of referrals and tickets to students. 

“Waco ISD was running with a very punitive culture for many, many years," Hamilton said. "As are many schools in the state of Texas. Because of zero-tolerance.”

And Hamilton says the campus police chief understood tickets were being written up for discretionary things.  So in that first year – Hamilton says tickets in the district decreased by 54-percent. Simply by closing up the ticket books. 

“It was as easy as that. Trained his staff and said you are going to be using Ms. Hamilton’s alternative tools now instead of writing these tickets,” said Hamilton. 

The district says these tools keep kids from going to alternative behavioral campuses or being sent home. And in the long run prevent students from starting a juvenile criminal record. Hamilton says major offenses like bringing drugs or a gun to school obviously still require sending students to disciplinary campuses. 

“I am only looking at discretionary offenses. Behavioral issues. You’ve spouted off in class, you’ve used profanity," said Hamilton. "You’ve scuffled with another student in the hallway. These are not offenses where you should lose your right to an education.”

Student court is just the last step in the larger Suspending Kids To School initiative. Before that, teachers recruit student leaders from different “cliques” on campus to prevent and intervene in situations where students act out. Hamilton says there are a combined 40-50 student ambassadors at each middle and high school at Waco ISD. And there about three to 400 mediations district wide each year.

“Those are conflicts that didn’t happen. Those are kids, 400 kids that learned conflict resolution," Hamilton said. 

Cases move on to student court when offenses occur. But if they don’t follow through with the programs here – they could be suspended or sent to an alternative campus. The Saturday diversion program is used the most in this phase. That’s because it’s available to all middle and high school campuses in the district. Parents are required to take two eight-hour classes on the weekend with the student. Here they learn about parenting, the adolescent mindset and anger management. 

“When we spend 16 hours with these families and that is a huge amount of time one on one, we are able to peel back the layers and get to the heart of what’s really going on," Hamilton said. "And we can help them remedy that.”

So this brings us back to Ms. Palladino’s courtroom at University High. Where students like Tiara usually resides as judge. She says it’s important to give students another option.

“We’re allowing them to explain themselves. Because who knows, when they get a referral they’re not allowed to explain themselves," Tiara said.  "But when they come to us they can explain themselves and we can give them a second chance.”

And our mock offender David typically resides as a juror. He says it’s easier to hold students accountable when the punishment is coming from your classmates.

“Because it’s a jury of your peers," David said. "They go to your same school. So they know what you’ve gotta do to get where you need to be.”

But the student courtroom is only used at University High. 

 These programs are optional for administrators to use on their campus. And Hamilton says getting more buy-in from other principals can present a challenge because it might not be their way of doing things. But the Waco ISD school board did vote in late September to continue the program for its fourth consecutive year. Hamilton says the main success she wants to see is more students staying on their campuses so they don’t get behind in their education.