East Baton Rouge Parish schools are in the midst of substantial changes in how they discipline children with disabilities.
Educational consultants Tony Doggett and Dale Bailey, both based in Mississippi, filled the parish School Board in on these changes Thursday night.
The lead consultant, Robert Marsh, was out of town Thursday.
They are part of a team of consultants that the state Department of Education compelled the school system to hire in 2010 to fix long-standing problems with special education services going back to 2003.
The consultants so far have focused a lot on tracking special education student discipline and developing effective alternatives to suspension.
Here are two disciplinary changes for special education students that the school system is making:
• Reporting students who get sent to the school system’s disciplinary centers as out-of-school suspensions rather than in-school suspensions. In the past, the school system considered these as less serious in-school suspensions.
• Listing as in-school suspensions students who stay in a time-out room for more than a class period. Until now, time-out room stays have not been considered in-school suspensions.
These changes will likely mean that fewer special education children are sent to alternative centers.
Superintendent John Dilworth said schools should send to alternative centers only the special education students with the most problems. Dilworth also told the board he is moving forward on plans he floated in the spring during the budget cut discussions to consolidate some or all of the disciplinary centers.
School Board member Jill Dyason expressed concern about whether crowded schools will have enough available space to handle the students they have in the past sent to discipline centers.
A former high school principal in Shreveport, which largely relied on schools to handle their own discipline problems, Dilworth said in his experience schools may occasionally have to use their gyms to house all the students in need of discipline.
To help make time-out rooms work better, the school system is requiring that room monitors go through more training. Principals are also getting more training in how best to discipline special education students.
The consultants have raised concerns that, too often, time-out rooms are not providing adequate instruction that allows children to stay on track and to help special education children receive the education outlined in the individualized education plans, or IEPs.
The consultants found that about 16 percent of special education students were sent to time-out rooms during the 2010-11 school year.
School Board President Barbara Freiberg told the board she has been sometimes “appalled” with what she’s seen when visiting time-out rooms through the years, but didn’t elaborate.
In an interview, Doggett said he and fellow consultants want schools that help children succeed.
“You are looking to have kids who do well academically, who behave well so they can be better citizens and contribute to society,” he said.
In their presentation, the consultants found that roughly a third of the schools are suspending children at rates at least three times greater than the nation as a whole. In one school, almost three-quarters of the special education students were suspended at least once during 2010-11.
Doggett said that in every school district he’s worked with at least a few schools are suspending a disproportionate number of special education students.
“What will it take so that, no offense, we don’t have to see you guys again?” board member Craig Freeman asked the consultants at one point.
Bailey, who was speaking at the time, did not give a timetable, but he said if the schools targeted are suspending less than 20 percent of their special education students each year that would go a long way.
In his interview, Doggett said that numerical targets are unavoidable.
“It’s not just about numbers, it’s about the outcomes for kids, but we have to use the numbers to find out if that’s happening,” he said.
Doggett described 2010-11 as a baseline year against which future progress will be measured. He said the current administration shares his goal that schools not only meet numerical goals but actually improve the education of special education children.
He said he’s especially happy with the school system’s support for the school discipline program known as Positive Behavior Intervention Support, or PBIS.
“In meetings with the superintendent and the different types of administrators, we see much more of a philosophy of accurate reporting and embrace of PBIS,” Doggett said.
School suspension rates that education consultants to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system found during the 2010-11 school year.
• About 29 percent of general education students and 26 percent of students with disabilities received at least one suspension.
• Nine schools suspended between 19 percent and 26 percent of their students with disabilities, roughly three times the national average.
• Twenty-three schools suspended more than 26.6 percent of their students, or more than four times the national average.