Exclusions from school down sharply

The number of children excluded from school for bad behavior has decreased dramatically in the past year amid a new approach to classroom discipline.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, 395 school days were lost to exclusions in the first term of the 2015/16 academic year at Cayman’s high schools. That number was down to 137 by the first term of 2016/17.

Education officials said the numbers represented a real decrease in “behavior incidents” and not simply a change in the types of offenses that merit exclusion.

Christen Suckoo, Chief Officer in the Ministry of Education, cited the statistics as proof that the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program introduced in September was making a difference.

“This is the result of a bespoke program and the hard work and effort of the principals and schools and their staff and their students in buying into it. It is literally a reduction in behavior incidents.”

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The intervention program, used in about a quarter of American schools, is essentially a management framework for ensuring a consistent approach to school discipline. It involves positive reinforcement, modeling good behavior and targeted interventions for students who consistently break the rules.

George Sugai, one of the directors of the program in the U.S., who was keynote speaker at the annual Educator’s Welcome at the start of the school year in September, said it had proven more effective in dealing with behavior issues than detentions and suspensions which failed to deal with the underlying issues.

Cetonya Cacho, deputy chief officer in the Ministry of Education, speaking to the media last week, said the practical effect of this method was that more work was being done to address the causes of bad behavior from students.

She said the approach focused on addressing children’s barriers to education, which ranged from violence at home to learning difficulties or mental health issues.

“What you are seeing in these numbers is teachers and principals being better able to identify those barriers and target them through multifaceted approaches. It is not just about “you’re a bad child you need to come out.”

She said this involved partnering with the Department of Children and Family Services and linking with education psychologists and other support services in schools.

John Gray High School accounted for a high percentage of the behavior incidents in 2015/16. There were 324 school days lost to suspensions in the first term of that academic year.

That fell to 124 in the first term this year.

Jon Clark, the principal at the school, said the attitude to learning in general was improving across the school.

“There are still too many incidents but we are making great progress, and to reduce these numbers in such a quick period of time can only be positive.”

He said reasons for exclusion varied. Incidents involving drugs or alcohol were low, but carried higher penalties, while persistent defiance of teachers was a relatively common reason for children to be excluded.

Fights between students was another common reason for exclusion, with the school taking a tough stance on that issue, he said.

“There are some things that are non-negotiable. If there is a violent incident or you suspect someone of having drugs; those things have to be dealt with severely. What we are trying to do is make sure that when they come back to school we put support in place to prevent them reoffending.”

He said the school was working on creating a positive attitude to learning.

“Incidents in class now are very rare, most are out of lesson and are a result of issues on social media outside of school or issues and tension within the community. Only 18 of our students have received an exclusion to home so far this academic year. The overwhelming majority of our students are engaged in learning and have a positive attitude towards our core business which is learning.”

Mr. Suckoo said it was difficult to eradicate incidents entirely, given the prevalence of drugs and violence in the community.

“There are issues in every single society on the planet that bleed into every area of that society, and schools are not insulated from those issues. Our job is to deal with them head on,” he said.

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