York City schools offer an alternative to suspension

Jessica Schladebeck

Chris Blazi stood at the front of his classroom, a news story displayed on a projector screen behind him, as he told the class about a former student from his teaching days in Harrisburg who always volunteered to read aloud when no one else would raise their hands.

Restorative Justice Academy Associate Director Chirs Blazi leads a class at Goodridge Academy Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. His classes are an alternative to suspension which draws students from city public schools. Students are allowed to complete school work during their suspensions.

"It can lead to this," Blazi said of acting out in school. "It doesn't always, but it can."The Fox43 news story's headline read: "Police identify 4th suspect in Harrisburg Homicide." The suspect was his former student — the one who made teachers smile in spite of a tendency to act out, Blazi told the group of students sitting in the Goodridge Academy classroom that houses the Restorative Justice Academy.

The Restorative Justice Academy, which was implemented by the York City School District towards the end of the 2014 school year, serves as an alternative to out-of-school suspension.

It's a "district-wide suspension room that offers these students something meaningful and not just a punishment," said Superintendent Eric Holmes. "Here, they can work on some skills to deal with some of the issues that may have led their suspension."

Blazi, the program's associate director, said the goal behind the academy is to deter the kind of behavior that leads young students down a bad path, as it had with his previous pupil.

Background:  In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report outlining a dramatic increase in out-of-school suspensions across the country.

Restorative Justice Academy student Treasure Williams, a Devers K-8 sixth-grader, listens in class at Goodridge Academy Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The program provides an alternative to suspension which draws students from city public schools. Students are allowed to complete school work during their suspensions.

According to the report, in the 2011-12 academic year, school districts in Pennsylvania issued more than 166,000 out-of-school suspensions, a rate of 10 suspensions per 100 students. York City School District led the state with its out-of-school suspension rate of 91.4 suspensions per 100 students, the report said.

"We had been monitoring our suspension rates for a number of years and realized they were higher than we would like for them to be," Holmes said. "So we were looking for creative ways to deal with discipline issues in the school district and were encouraged to look at various models as an alternative."

The district landed on the Restorative Justice Academy, which offers York City students in grades six through 12 facing suspension the option to enter into the program, where they engage in group counselling and school work instead of spending their suspensions at home.

"It can be difficult for parents to stay home for five, six days if their kid gets suspended," said Leonard Brown, Goodridge Academy's program director. "These kids could be spending those days home alone doing who knows what. They could be out on the streets, and that's scary right now."

Restorative Justice Academy students Curt Langford, a Ferguson seventh-grader, listens in class at Goodridge Academy Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The program provides an alternative to suspension which draws students from city public schools. Students are allowed to complete school work during their suspensions.

Students are taken into the program for a minimum of five days and a maximum of 10 before transitioning back to their regular classrooms.

Their day: Students begin to arrive around 8:45 a.m. and start their days with a security check.

"I can confidently say this is the safest building in the entire school district," Brown said.

Students then have the option of eating breakfast before they go to their first of three assemblies, in which they take turns either standing in front of the class and taking ownership of their mistakes — what they refer to as re-directions — or offering feedback to help each other improve. After, they outline their re-directions, whether it be a uniform infraction or disrespecting a student, in a packet teachers look at in order to identify any type of behavioral patterns.

Their day also consists of Guided Group Intervention, a kind of group discussion that varies in topic, Blazi said. On Thursday, the class of nine discussed perception and filled out a worksheet while discussing things like how they perceive themselves and how they're perceived by others, as well as how they hope to be perceived.

Students come from different campuses across the York City School District and each of their teachers sends work for them complete while they're in the academy to prevent them from falling behind.

"One of the best things here is that they're still maintaining that academic progress," Blazi said.

But the real selling point of the program, he said, is that the suspension doesn't end up on the students record if they finish the program.

Recidivism: Curt Langford Jr., a seventh-grader at Ferguson K-8, on Thursday was on the eighth day of his 10-day suspension for disrespecting a staff member.

"It's boring and quiet here," he said. "I know it's not a good thing that I'm here."

It's different than being in an actual class, Curt said, noting that his teachers and friends weren't there.

"It's a good environment though, and I like it sometimes," he said. "I get my work done, and I'm learning about stuff not to do and that there is a time and place for certain actions."

Langford, a basketball fan and football fanatic, is on his fourth stint with the Restorative Justice Academy. His prior suspensions were for fighting, which Blazi said is the No. 1 reason for suspensions in the district.

While there are a few instances where students return the program, Curt is actually in the minority.

Of the 400 or so students who have come through the program, only 8 percent come back, Blazi said.

"We certainly see the impact of this program, we don't see anywhere near as much recidivism," Holmes said. "It's not just a punitive disciplinary activity. We're trying to move away from those sorts of strategies and instead talk about conflict resolution.

"You still have to deal with the issues that are creating these suspensions," he said. "We are looking for ways to give kids skills to prevent their involvement in future incidents. This is what keeps kids from being suspended a third, fourth, fifth time."

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