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The Difference: School Discipline Alternatives, What's Working and What's Not

Virginia Alvino

This week for our series The Difference, we’re taking a look at school discipline, and how it affects students of color.

So far we’ve learned how a series of small punishments can have big effects on students’ lives through the school to prison pipeline. We’ve also heard about alternative discipline plans that work to prevent that snowballing effect, and keep kids in the classroom.

Fort Wayne Community Schools is among the districts that have implemented a new plan, and they say slowly but surely, it’s helping close their discipline gap.  

Today, we hear two intersecting stories: a district trying to make a change, and a student who’s not seeing a difference.

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino has more on one school discipline alternative, what’s working, and what’s not.

It’s Saturday afternoon. School’s only been in session a few weeks, and Virshawn Lewis is over at his friend’s house on the southeast side of town.

The eighteen year old is a senior at Wayne. He says he’s lucky to be there – last year he could’ve been expelled for trying to sell marijuana at school.

“I really did think I was gonna get away with it," says Virshawn. "Actually I stole it from my brother, my older brother, I thought I could just go to school, sell it, get some money off of it, but I got told on.” 

Virshawn said the cops were just doing their job when they came and arrested him. He says he never did anything like that again, and now school’s going alright – for the most part.

“Grades average, you know, C’s or better, you know grades average," says Virshawn, "it’s just that I just be horse playing too much in class, trying to be a class clown when I shouldn’t.” 

Catch that? He says he knows he shouldn’t – which begs the question why does he want to be a class clown?

“I’m just goofy," says Virshawn. "I just like the attention, a lot of females be clowning with me and stuff.” 

For Virshawn, “clowning” can be talking, texting, basically just not paying attention. That results in a lot of referrals to the office –11 so far this year alone.

But he’s had a lot more than that in his academic career. That means he spends a lot of time out of class, and in in school suspensions, or ISS.

Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News
Virshawn Lewis is a senior at Wayne High School in Fort Wayne.

“At least send us back to class," says Virshawn, "because once you go to ISS, most people just sleep, because it’s so boring, you can’t talk, so I just be in there sleeping.” 

And sending him back to class is exactly what research based discipline systems aim to do – keep kids in the classroom as much as possible. Don’t send them out for minor offenses. Train teachers in cultural differences, and work with students personally. One system is called positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS.

Wayne High’s district, Fort Wayne Community Schools adopted it four years ago. Johnnie Grimes with the district, explains why.

“We were in significant disproportionality for African American males in suspensions and expulsions," says Grimes, "so we needed something that we thought would help us lessen that gap.” 

But, Grimes says changing to PBIS wasn’t a major shift. She says "we had pockets of it, we just weren’t systematic.” 

She says the district had been looking at their data and the achievement gap since the nineties, and some individual teachers already managed their classroom that way.

Lane Middle School principal Mark Bailey says implementing PBIS has been going well at his school, and although it’s a tremendously difficult subject to broach, conversations about race at his school have been getting easier every year.

“There is that natural defensiveness," says Bailey, "when you say our black students have more referrals, our black students have more F’s. 'What are you saying I’m a racist?' No that’s not what we’re saying.”

What Bailey is saying, is that it takes lots of training and resources for teachers to be able to relate to all their students, and discipline equitably.

Mary Vendrely is a sixth grade teacher at Lane. This is her twenty-fifth year teaching. She says “when I was in school, you got paddled.” 

Of course times have mostly changed, but Vendrely says discipline always has, and always will be a critical part of her classroom management.

“If they don’t respect you and they’re not listening to you," Vendrely says, "they’re not going to learn.” 

She says she likes PBIS because it makes up for what you miss when learning to be a teacher, which mostly just focuses on curriculum.

“There’s not so much of a focus on build those relationships, get to know these students, get to know where they’re from, get to know their stories, get to know who they are as human beings,” says Vendrely. 

I heard from newer teachers who said PBIS makes sense to them, but also that there was some initial pushback from the more seasoned educators who had to adapt.

“There’s just different generations of teachers and what they have in their brain as being ok in the classroom," says Vendrely. "Now 'we have this, and you’re telling me I have to keep them in here.' Well that’s your job, you’re a teacher, so they need to be in there so they’ll learn.” 

For Virshawn Lewis, he says the way he’s disciplined has always depended entirely on the individual teacher. “Some of my teachers are probably like, he just won’t learn,” he says. 

But not all of them are quick to send him to the office.

“They know what type of person I am because I’ve been there for a minute," says Virshawn. "Some are like, I know what he’s capable of doing, so they work with me, do what they can, try to keep me in class.” 

For now, he’s just trying to focus up, get through the rest of the school year.

“Hopefully I’ll get the rest of these credits, graduate, then I’ll go to college,” says Virshawn.

He says he might like to study business, or really anything to do with money. As far as his referrals, he still holds himself accountable for each one of them, and isn’t sure that’ll change anytime soon. "I probably just haven’t looked at the big picture when I should.”

For Virshawn, it’s up to himself to reduce his suspensions. But the research shows, there are things districts can do, like PBIS, to help get the overall numbers down.

The discipline gap is big, and not just in Indiana. It may just take time, and everyone working towards equity, to eventually close it completely.

This is the latest installment in WBOI's yearlong project, "The Difference."

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