About 200 area principals, teachers, students, parents and other community members talked about ways to improve school discipline Wednesday night at an event sponsored by the Seattle Times' Education Lab project.

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Once Dayöne Florence got labeled a troublemaker, teachers often assumed he was involved in classroom disruptions, even if he had nothing to do with it. Once, when it was his fault, he was suspended for several months because of a fight.

He didn’t get back on track until he transferred to a smaller, alternative high school — Seattle’s Middle College High — where teachers took the time to get to know him. Now he’s about to graduate.

“My teachers talk to me when I have a problem. If I’m not feeling up to it, then they either leave me alone or give me space to do my work somewhere else,” Florence told an audience of more than 200 school leaders, teachers, students, parents and advocates Wednesday night for a discussion about how to improve school discipline.

The need for stronger teacher-student relationships was a key theme that emerged from the event, which was sponsored by The Seattle Times’ Education Lab and held at South Seattle College.

Education Lab reporter Claudia Rowe’s coverage of school discipline, including three in-depth stories about the efforts of the SpokaneHighline, and Kent school districts to reduce out-of-school suspensions, set the context for the discussion. Education Lab’s coverage of the issue over the last six months has included a guest column from a policy researcher as well as teacher’s views on effective discipline practices.

Four speakers with different points of view got the conversation going Wednesday: Ted Howard, principal of Seattle’s Garfield High School; Jay Maebori, who teaches at Kentwood High in the Kent School District, and two Seattle high-school students: Florence and Franky Price.

Price’s discipline story was rooted in elementary school, where he felt on his own because he couldn’t form strong relationships with his teachers.

“I didn’t really learn the skill to actually connect with my teachers that well yet, to actually have really good bonds with any staff or teachers,” Price told the audience.

Price, now a senior at Seattle’s Chief Sealth High, said he needed an adult to reach across that chasm and ask him what was going on, but he got punitive discipline instead, which sidetracked his learning.

Maebori said suspensions and detentions are a quick fix for overwhelmed teachers, but they don’t work in the long run for students.

“Sometimes we just really want that disruptive student out of the class so we can get back to doing our job with the other 30 plus students who are entrusted to our care,” he said. “The solution has to include building relationships.”

Howard said that when teachers send students to the principal’s office for discipline, they often never discuss the situation with the student, expecting that the problem will be fixed when the student returns to class.

“Think about that as parent,” Howard said. “I’m angry with you and you’re my child and I don’t say anything to you. I say, ‘go next door and talk to the neighbor.’ And then when you come back, you should be fine. If we think about that system, we know it’s not working.”

He said discipline is a complicated issue that will take a lot of people working together to solve.

“No one person can do it. It takes all of us,” he said.

This is the second event on school discipline that Education Lab has sponsored this school year.  A report on the first one can be found here.