Three years ago, Highline sat at the leading edge of a national effort to rethink school discipline and move away from outright punishment. Since then, many teachers have resigned, pointing toward a vast gulf between embracing ideals and making them real.
When Jasmine Kettler kissed her mother goodbye at Sea-Tac Airport and boarded a plane to Bangkok last month, she carried nothing but a backpack, laptop and memories so traumatic that the former Highline High School teacher had purchased no return ticket.
Her plans are fluid. She may volunteer in a refugee camp on the Burmese border. She could spend a few months in a Thai monastery. The only firm agenda: healing from what she describes as three years of constant frustration and fear as a Highline teacher.
The pack-up-and-leave solution may be extreme, but Kettler is among more than 200 educators who had resigned from the district as of June, many saying Highline’s new approach to student discipline has created outright chaos.
The turmoil of the past school year didn’t help, with an alleged gang rape, several student deaths and criminal charges, including murder, for a group of boys not yet out of middle school.
Six of the 19 homicide charges filed this year in King County have been brought against current or recent Highline students.
Veteran teachers are shaking their heads. Three years ago, Highline sat poised at the leading edge of a national effort to rethink the way schools handle misbehavior, based on evidence that booting kids out results mainly in their return to class angrier and more behind than ever — if they return at all.
Superintendent Susan Enfield, an ambitious and visionary schools chief, vowed to eliminate such punitive sanctions, except in cases that jeopardized campus safety. Instead, Highline would keep its students on campus — even if they cursed at teachers, fought with peers or threw furniture — attempting to address the roots of their behavior through a combination of counseling and academic triage.
The outcry that has emerged since reveals a vast gulf between announcing ideals and making them real.
Early signs of trouble
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Kettler, like many, initially thought Enfield’s progressive-minded approach was inspiring, even brilliant. The phys-ed teacher considered it a personal mission to help break the well-documented connection between sending kids out of school through old-fashioned discipline and seeing them end up in jail cells, a pattern known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Across Lake Washington in Bellevue, similar concerns have spurred that district to spend an extra $160,000 this year on substance-abuse counselors and mediation training. Schools in Renton, Kent and Federal Way are experimenting with “restorative practices,” which fosters deep conversation between students and teachers.
But Highline has focused on in-school suspension.
Rather than tossing kids for defiant behavior, teachers were expected to manage their outbursts in class, and refer chronic misbehavers to a kind of super study hall where an academic coach would get them back on track and connect those who needed it to counseling.
Over three years, from 2013 to 2016, expulsion and home suspensions in the district, which once totaled 2,100 incidents annually, plummeted 77 percent, to 475 last June, and Enfield began receiving applause throughout the region for her work on behalf of marginalized youth.
But in Highline classrooms, trouble cropped up immediately.
Teachers had received little or no training on de-escalation techniques to use in their classrooms. Each school interpreted the new discipline rules differently. And in a district of 20,000 mostly poor kids, a single truancy officer was employed to ensure they attended class.
“I’ve never seen a kid come back from in-school suspension caught up,” said Kristina Smethers, an art teacher at Mount Rainier High. “In fact, they seemed to get worse, as if they really didn’t consider it much of a consequence.”
“Learning as we go”
Enfield acknowledges some missteps.
It was a mistake, she said, to use the phrase “eliminate suspension” because the district always intended that principals would send kids home if they harmed, or threatened to harm, staff or other students.
In-school suspension, she added, should not necessarily have been led by certified educators. But rather, people who could connect with kids. And classroom teachers could have benefitted from more training up front.
“We were kind of flying blind at first,” Enfield said. “I feel confident that we’re not giving suspensions for the wrong reasons anymore. Now we need to make sure what’s happening when they’re in the building is going right. We’re learning as we go.”
This year, she promises instruction for all educators on the effects of trauma, and how to defuse the explosive behaviors that often result. Simultaneously, those running Highline’s in-school suspension programs will follow up with kids to ensure they remain on track. Return visits will be seen as a red flag signaling the need for more serious corrections.
But overall, Enfield remains unapologetic about her belief that much of the responsibility for handling difficult students rests with teachers.
“We are telling them, ‘You no longer get to write kids off.’ For some people, that’s been a struggle,” she said.
By way of example, she told the story of a seventh-grader who had cursed her teacher, pulled a hood over her head and refused to speak — all of it behavior that once would have resulted in a home suspension for defiance.
“What’s going on?” an assistant principal asked, after the girl was sent to the office.
For 20 minutes, the teen made no sound. Then a few tears dribbled down her face. She had been raped by her stepfather that morning, Enfield later learned.
“What if it was three years ago and we had sent her home — back to that hell?” said the superintendent, tearing up herself. “I’d act out too if I was 13 and that was happening to me.”
Concerns about morale
The departure of 200 educators also does not concern Enfield, who says that’s a turnover rate of 10 to 11 percent, which is standard in Highline.
Teachers union President Sue McCabe, however, sees those 200 resignations as evidence of a much deeper issue. This spring, 23 educators left Highline High School — almost 30 percent of the staff. Another 20 left Mount Rainier High, a quarter of the teaching force. This year, the entire science department at Global Connections High School is new.
“We have a morale problem,” McCabe said. “Rather than fighting for their students, or for themselves, people are leaving. Two hundred educators resigning — that’s a lot, no matter how ‘normal’ it is.”
A significant portion of the exodus are neither overwhelmed neophytes nor burned-out retirees. Carinna Tarvin, a National Board Certified social-studies teacher, worked in the district for 10 years before accepting a position this fall at Lincoln High School in Tacoma.
“They got rid of suspension, but they didn’t replace it with anything else,” she said. “The theory is great — it’s just not implemented very thoughtfully.”
Brendan Dotson, who earned his master’s degree through the prestigious Urban Scholars program at Harvard University, left Highline after 12 years for a job at Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle.
Both Dotson and Tarvin, in other words, have dedicated their professional lives to working with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Both say they can no longer do it in Highline.
“We aren’t leaving because teaching is hard, because our buildings are disintegrating, because our evaluation process is scary, because our compensation is too low, or because standardized testing means that there are over two weeks each year where we can’t teach new material,” reads the breakup letter signed by several dozen district educators.
They are leaving, they said, because their concerns about discipline went unheeded.
What can work, mostly
As a blueprint going forward, Enfield points toward the approach that Matthew Burman uses for in-school suspension at Pacific Middle School.
There, he works with two or three kids at a time, first meeting with each individually to establish a relationship. Then he builds a highly structured program: 25 minutes of academics, a five-minute break, and another 25 minutes of coaching on self-reflection, role-playing and standing up for oneself without resorting to violence.
The cycle repeats all day, for two days, and Burman has found that it works with most kids. (Shorter sanctions do little, he said, resulting primarily in students marking time and watching the clock.)
As evidence of success, the district points to Burman’s data. Over the past two years, teachers at Pacific Middle have made 57 percent fewer discipline referrals to his classroom, and Enfield now plans to replicate his techniques districtwide.
But many area parents remain unconvinced, some hustling to enroll their children in private schools over the summer, rather than take a chance on Enfield’s campaign.
Burman does not fault them. A small but significant portion of students — about 10 to 15 percent — can paralyze a class and need more intensive attention than he can provide. Kids like Alex Crisostomo, 15, who was a regular in Burman’s program, until he was charged as an adult with second-degree murder in the shooting death of a 41-year-old Burien man last spring.
At the time, Crisostomo had been on a 45-day home suspension. His alleged accomplice in the shooting, also a frequent visitor to Burman’s classroom, was truant.
“Both of them tried, in their way, to make school work — they tried pretty hard, actually,” Burman said. “We felt like we were between a rock and a hard place. We knew suspension wasn’t really a solution. It would keep the campus safe, but not necessarily the community.”
That quandary spotlights the question lurking behind many conversations about student discipline: what to do with the hardest-to-reach kids, the ones most in need of help?
A few days with Burman likely would not have been enough to change the trajectory of another one-time Highline student, now 13 and charged in connection with the shootings of five people at The Jungle homeless encampment last spring.
Yes, he was sometimes a discipline problem, said Kaitlyn Spore, his sixth-grade teacher at Southern Heights Elementary. But what she remembers most is the way he always asked to stay after class and do extra work on his model of the Jamestown colonial settlement. The way he raced over to it each morning — after arriving from a homeless shelter — to check that nothing had happened to his creation the night before.
“He was extremely inventive, and when he was engaged, he was on fire,” Spore said.
Enfield calls kids like these “outliers,” and says, frankly, that their needs exceed what her schools can address.
Fears about safety
But Highline’s discipline problem stretches much wider than a few students at the far end of a behavior spectrum.
Kettler, the Highline High teacher who fled to Southeast Asia, described her reality in a fiery farewell blog post detailing bloody assaults, daily harassment and brazen drug use.
“My students are literally getting shot and some of them are doing the shooting,” she wrote. “Students admit to knowing there are weapons on campus. Violence is rampant and behavior management is nonexistent within our school community.”
At an Aug. 17 school board meeting, a senior at the school echoed that assessment.
“There’s a fight every week and it just feels normal — but it shouldn’t,” said Carson Torres, 18.
Bob France, former dean of students at Mount Rainier High, resigned last spring because, after nearly a decade there, the veteran educator no longer felt safe.
“The district is instituting a philosophy without a solid plan behind it,” he said. “It wasn’t unusual for me to be threatened — kids get mad, parents get mad. What I worried about much more was what I heard and saw going on around the building, with kids who really should not be there.”
Enfield remains unbowed, convinced that her approach, with some adjustments, is the right one.
This year, those managing in-school suspension programs will meet regularly with Burman. New data tracking promises to highlight behavior trends before they become emergencies. And last week Enfield’s entire cabinet visited Highline High to hear directly from teachers.
“You do this work one student at a time,” said Jody McVittie, of the nonprofit Sound Discipline, hired to coach teachers at four elementary schools.
“I admire Highline for taking a bold risk. They’re paying for it now in some respects because this work is harder than it looks — maybe harder than they realized. But they’re not giving up. I don’t think there’s any district anywhere that’s completely succeeding in this. It’s a new road.”