This story is part of (DIS)Invested, an ongoing series from The Reader and El Perico investigating the solutions and obstacles to solving system inequality in Omaha through housing, education, criminal justice and family issues.
The first time Nichelle Taylor-Jones’s son was suspended from Central High School he was only a week into his freshman year. The bell rang, and he couldn’t find his class, so he wandered the halls.
“He was still trying to find his way around,” his mother recalled, when a school security guard told him to get to class.
“He reacted — yelling and telling them to get off of him — and he got suspended,” Taylor-Jones said.
As the year progressed, despite his desires to do well, he struggled to stay in class and was suspended “almost every two weeks” until school let out in the spring, according to his mother. That was the fall of 2018. When COVID-19 hit, he struggled even more to stay in class, and had another round of suspensions.
Two years into the pandemic, teachers and students alike are in crisis mode. The grief and anxiety brought on by COVID-19 has poured over as misbehavior has increased in classrooms across the nation and metro, including in the Omaha Public Schools, as described in a recent report in the Omaha World Herald. Thirty-seven staff members will be leaving Central High School at the end of the current school year, reported The Register, the high schools student newspaper. And staffing shortages have pushed educators to their breaking points, and their concerns for student and staff mental health are alarmingly high, according to a statewide survey by the Nebraska State Education Association.
In order to address issues exacerbated by the pandemic, experts say harsh punishments aren’t what students need. Research shows punitive discipline such as suspensions and expulsions are linked to academic disengagement, lower achievement and greater risks of school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. While suspensions dropped in OPS schools during the pandemic, disproportionate suspension rates for Black students persisted.
“When you have kids who have numerous situations in which they were expelled or suspended, then it creates an environment where the value of (the school system) is not seen in their lives,” said Doris Moore, a licensed independent mental health practitioner and founder and CEO of the Center for Holistic Development, a community-based nonprofit focused on behavioral health needs, particularly in Omaha’s Black communities.
Black students, who make up 25% of the OPS district, accounted for nearly half of the students suspended in the 2020-2021 school year. Data analysis shows they were suspended six times more frequently than other students.
The disproportionality in discipline rates isn’t new for OPS schools, nor is it isolated. National data shows students of color are more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts.
Before COVID-19 interrupted student learning and exacerbated behavioral health challenges in schools, research showed educators’ implicit and explicit biases against Black students could perpetuate the racial gap in discipline rates, starting as early as preschool. Last year, OPS officials updated their code of conduct to discourage suspensions for kids in preschool and kindergarten.
When her son was first suspended, Taylor-Jones felt like the school labeled him a “bad kid” because of his behavior but rarely addressed why he was acting up.
“A lot of his behavior stemmed from being angry,” she said. “These children do have voices, and it’s time to start listening, because they’re in pain.”
New Supports Gain Traction in OPS Schools
OPS has set a goal to decrease the number of disciplinary actions taken against kids by 3% each year by 2025. The district has implemented what’s known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavior (MTSS-B).
MTSS-B is an evidenced-based, problem-solving framework for behavior in schools. It began with federal legislation aimed at helping students with disabilities and grew into a supportive tool used by schools nationwide. It’s a systematic approach that aims to help teachers more effectively address student behavior in class and identify challenges interfering with their ability to learn.
The multi-tiered systems were first implemented in OPS schools in 2015, after a review by the Nebraska Dept. of Education found high suspension rates for Black special education students.
“We’re really thinking about how we provide different layers of support for students based on need,” said MTSS-B supervisor Danielle Starkey, who oversees the system’s implementation in schools across the district.
The first layer of support strives to create “safe, predictable school environments that are going to prevent problematic behavior from happening in the first place,” Starkey said. That includes clear expectations that teach students how to behave in class.
“We’re looking at the student and thinking about what does each student need in order to be successful? And that’s where those different tiers come into play, in terms of how much support do we need to provide to each student in order for them to have their social, emotional and behavioral needs be met?”
MTSS-B has been rolled out on the first tier level in all OPS schools and programs, although some schools are further along than others, Starkey said. For implementation to be fully successful, it takes time, money and educators’ willingness and ability to participate. Staff workshops and professional development days can bring educators the training they need.
But finding the time for professional development is challenging for teachers who are overstretched. Throughout the pandemic, teachers have spoken out at Omaha Public Schools Board of Education meetings with pleas for pandemic pay as they cover colleagues’ classes. They’ve called for moratoriums on meetings, including a halt on professional development to catch up on class planning.
Ricky Smith, a member of OPS’s board of education, said MTSS-B and OPS professional development opportunities, some of which include a stipend for participating educators, can help teachers learn how to redirect student behaviors more effectively.
“It just depends on how well our teachers and our educators are able to absorb that information and utilize all the steps to keep our kids from being suspended and expelled,” Smith said.
The dynamics that changed classrooms during the pandemic required educators to teach and address behavioral outbursts at the same time.
In order to improve behavioral issues in schools, parents need a seat at the table, Smith said. He encourages parents to not only advocate for their students at school, but also to talk to them about behavior in school at home.
“As a parent, don’t think that your voice isn’t heard or your voice doesn’t matter,” he said. “But you have to be accountable for your student’s actions.”
Smith also said parents should contact their district’s board member when problems arise with discipline.
“All of us are concerned about the disparities in the district with the suspensions and expulsions,” he said. “Our main focus is to have everybody at school every day.”
“I honestly believe that we can help people before they get into a crisis.”
When Moore, the founder of the Center for Holistic Development, first created the organization, no other effort in the city truly focused on the behavioral health needs of the African American community. She believes Black-led, community-based initiatives like hers are critical solutions to addressing students’ behavioral issues and minimizing suspensions and expulsions.
“We really do a disservice to our teachers, because they go to school to become a teacher. They don’t go to school and think about all of the things that this child has to deal with before they come into your classroom,” she said.
Culture plays a huge role in addressing social and emotional health, Moore said, especially for Black and brown communities. Both the challenges and triumphs of Black history influenced how ancestors of today’s generations developed and moved forward, and without recognizing that, healing can be harder, she said.
“Our help and support, and the effectiveness of what we do for the children is really only contingent upon how much we can touch the environment that they come from,” Moore said.
Moore’s team helps students connect with behavioral support that addresses the root causes of trauma and leaves a positive, lasting impact on students, their families and their communities.
One program called Real Talk helps young people deal with their social and emotional competence. Students first learn self-awareness about feelings and emotions and how they impact the world around them, then learn about understanding other people and their feelings and emotions and, finally, learn how to communicate that with one another.
High school sophomore Na’tavia has always been a social butterfly with the “gift of the gab,” according to her mother, Sasha, who did not provide her last name. But when remote learning put her favorite clubs and activities on halt, her mom watched the isolation and boredom of quarantine lead to her disinterest in class.
“You can’t put a butterfly in a cage and expect it to be great,” Sasha said.
As a diversion from the juvenile justice system after a suspension for attendance almost gave her a truancy charge, Na’tavia connected with programs at the Center for Holistic Development.
“Ms. Michelle (who supervises youth programs) brought out the best in her and reminded her ‘you are a good kid,’” Sasha said.
Sasha has seen Na’tavia’s behavior improve with the help of “people who look like her, talk like her, think like her.”
Students may be referred to programs like the Center for Holistic Development when they have recurring suspensions or instances of misbehavior, but Moore’s goal is to reach students sooner.
“I tell people, I want to work myself out of a job, because I honestly believe that we can help people before they get into a crisis,” she said.