Urbana schools attempt equitable discipline

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Ronnie Turner-Winston on Friday, April 5, 2019. Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess

Despite continuous coverage of misbehavior in Urbana School District 116, there have been overall disciplinary improvements, parents said.

At a Feb. 19 Parent Teacher Student Association meeting at the Urbana Middle School, principal Dr. Joseph Wiemelt shared data revealing compared to this time last year, fights have been reduced by half.

Melissa Pasco, a member of the Urbana Middle School PTSA, attributes fight reduction to the new restorative justice disciplinary model. Traditional disciplinary measures like suspension and expulsion take students out of the classroom, but restorative justice aims to keep students in school while also addressing the root of the problem.

Former superintendent Don Owen believed new disciplinary measures were necessary after seeing how students of color were more often punished.

Nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica formed the Miseducation database, based on the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights data for the 2015-16 school year. Examining the Urbana High School, the ProPublica team found minority students faced higher rates of disciplinary action than their white counterparts. Of the 104 students who faced out-of-school suspensions that year, 64 were black.

Ashley Coyne, former USD 116 elementary school teacher, said, “Children have a much better chance of succeeding if they’re in school than out of school.”

Coyne had worked in the district for three years, teaching at Thomas Paine Elementary for two years and student teaching at Dr. Preston L. Williams Jr. Elementary and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary for several months. Her experience in the different schools caused her to see misbehavior trends across the district.

Coyne and her colleagues had a collaborative behavior management strategy. If a student was misbehaving, they would send the student to their respective teacher partner, and the student would sit and reflect in the other classroom before being allowed back.

There are also restorative justice circles — which can be called by students or teachers — that encourage students to participate in self-guided conflict resolution, according to Pasco.

“What I liked about restorative justice was it allowed for the two parties to come to the conclusion, if they could come to a conclusion, on their own,” she said. “Maybe they sit by each other at lunch or maybe they agree not to talk to each other, so the idea is that it comes from them and they decide what the course of action is.” 

However, the new disciplinary initiative has been one of a series of controversies USD 116 has face this semester, including the removal of there superintendents.

Ronnie Turner-Winston, who has been part of the PTSA at the middle and high schools in the district for over 20 years, says a misconception in the community is that restorative justice was implemented this past school year. In fact, Owen began implementing these disciplinary changes years ago, and what changed this year was reframing the deans’ positions, according to Turner-Winston.

In September, the Urbana High School called an emergency town hall meeting to address concerns about the disciplinary policy. This came after two isolated incidents: a former student entered the school and attacked a current student and a threat against the school was issued on social media. When parents and community members raised questions about increasing police presence, Owen had said given historic police relations with different groups of people, students and families may feel more anxious. 

After a fight at the high school in early February that resulted in several students’ arrests and a teacher injured, a plainclothes officer will be employed at the school.

Turner-Winston helped establish a parent advocacy group to address concerns about the new disciplinary changes and to educate parents about restorative justice. Turner-Winston actually decided to switch her doctoral dissertation at Grand Canyon University to study restorative justice after her experience with the district. She has done a copious amount of research and says the community needs to give the practice more time, saying it takes three to five years for effective implementation.

“You gotta give it time to work,” she said. “We don’t even have all the players on the same page yet, so to me, the clock hasn’t even started.”

Turner-Winston is putting her fourth and final child through the Urbana School District. She attributes part of the misbehavior to young and inexperienced teachers, recognizing “it’s hard to be an authoritarian figure over someone who is not much younger than you.”

According to Illinois Report Card, an annual report issued by the Illinois State Board of Education, teacher retention within the district for the past school year was 82 percent. However, at Paine where Coyne was a teacher, it was only 72 percent.

Coyne, who moved to Arizona with her partner, now teaches in an affluent area where parent involvement is high and misbehavior is low. From her time in the Urbana School District, Coyne’s behavior management strategy is still rooted in relationship-building and laying out clear expectations for her students. She says for restorative justice to work in Urbana schools, administrators need to be at the schools and in the field to assess what realistic implementation could look like.

“The superintendent needs to be in the schools, talking to teachers, observing students, talking to students because they don’t know what’s best unless they’re there at least,” she said.

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