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Dignity in Schools Campaign National Conference–"A Collective Voice for Dignity in Schools"

By Ruth Cusick

On June 5 and 6, 2009, 150 advocates, parents, educators, community organizers, and youth from 20 states gathered for the first national Dignity in Schools Campaign Conference at the Northwestern School of Law in Chicago. The goal of the conference and the ongoing work of the Dignity in Schools Campaign is to reframe the national dialogue on school climate and discipline within a human rights framework and to affirm that the human right to an education includes: full development of the child; protection of human dignity; freedom from discrimination; and right to participation of parents, students, and educators.

This dynamic two-day conference balanced engaging plenary sessions from national experts on such topics as "Promoting Alternatives to Zero-Tolerance" and "School Pushout and Human Rights" with small group breakout sessions during which we shared information and strategized together about ending school pushout.

A key goal of the conference was to have participants dialogue and give feedback on a draft resolution to end pushout. This resolution covered four major areas regarding pushout: the policies and practices that lead to it, the populations disproportionately affected by it, its consequences, and solutions to combat it. Over-reliance on law enforcement to control school discipline and on punitive measures such as suspensions and expulsions were confirmed throughout the sessions as key factors contributing to pushout. Participants worked in small breakout sessions to review and edit the resolution. Those edits were then compiled and reviewed a second time in the breakout sessions and then final suggestions were shared with all conference participants in a report-back session. This in-depth process ensured that all the stakeholders at the conference had a part in shaping the resolution. The Dignity in Schools Campaign is now working on next steps for national action including finalizing/publishing the National Resolution on Ending School Pushout.

Participants were able to concretely and specifically delve into strategies to combat pushout in community dialogue breakout sessions. In these small breakout sessions, participants discussed reframing school discipline through the human rights framework. Participants then dialogued on specific examples of pushout, identified what human rights were violated in the situation, and articulated how differently those situations would have proceeded if the human rights framework was respected and enforced. Participants developed criteria for effective school practices to address pushout within the human rights framework and from those criteria developed community action plans of best practices. Participants then spent the last community dialogue session making recommendations for multi-stakeholder coalitions at the local and national level.

The plenary session offered participants a chance to hear from and dialogue with national experts. Two speakers during the conference focused on the growing use of Positive Behavior Support strategies to transform school discipline. Nancy Franklin, coordinator of behavior support at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) discussed implementation of LAUSD's new School-Wide Positive Behavior Support Discipline Policy, which uses evidence-based practices to support a shift in the climate of schools. Ms. Franklin explored four main ideas regarding the policy: schools addressing emotional and social needs of children, the importance of dignity and mutual respect, addressing disparities in discipline, and working with parents. Crucial to the goal of ending school pushout was Ms. Franklin's focus on data monitoring to ensure implementation and the creation of regular school-site data reviews of office-discipline referrals, attendance, and achievement because data on suspensions, expulsions, transfers, and drop outs is data that is "too late." Additionally, John Gardner of the Illinois Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports Network (PBIS) shared that the mission of their network is to build skills and capacity of PBIS district- and school-based leadership teams through training, coaching, and technical assistance.

Several successful strategies to combat school pushout were also shared during the plenaries. Marco Nunez of Padres Unidos shared a truly inspiring story of a successful community campaign in Denver that achieved a progressive school discipline policy. The Denver Public Schools Discipline Policy now has a tiered approach to discipline, which includes assessment to determine whether an administrative/legal, restorative, or skill-based/therapeutic intervention is most appropriate for the student misconduct. Mr. Nunez shared that the victory of a new discipline policy could not have been achieved without effective community organizing and mobilizing as well strategic media work. Judge Brian Huff of the Jefferson County Family Court described a collaborative agreement to address disproportionate referrals to the Jefferson County Family Court from the Birmingham City Schools. This collaborative agreement was reached by bringing together the Birmingham Schools Superintendent, the Birmingham Police Department, Jefferson County Family Court, county Department of Human Resources, probation officers, and the district attorney's office. The agreement outlines that minor school-based offenses will not result in an arrest unless it is the student's third or subsequent offense, and this protocol will reduce court referrals by Birmingham schools by 84 percent. Judge Huff and Mr. Nunez's successes were a few of the many successful strategies shared throughout the conference.

Additionally, the conference was greatly enriched by youth participation and performances by Voices from LA, Detroit Streets Speak, Alternative Intervention Models (A.I.M.), and Detroit Summer. Youth participants shared their experiences in schools and called on all participants to ensure youth participation in advocacy collaborations.

As a young attorney, one of the most exciting things about participating in this conference was the truly thoughtful and challenging conversations that happened because so many different stakeholders were in the room; teachers asked questions that advocates had not confronted; parents shared empowering strategies. Participants shared key successes and challenges they confronted in doing work in their own communities, and this conference created a unique space for that sharing to occur.

To watch videos of keynote and plenary panels, or access conference materials, speaker presentations, and other online resources, please visit the conference page of the Dignity in Schools Campaign website.

Ruth Cusick is a staff attorney and Skadden Fellow at Mental Health Advocacy Services in Los Angeles.

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