Lori Duerr

Lori Duerr

Falmouth Superintendent of Schools Lori S. Duerr said the district is examining student disciplinary practices across Falmouth’s seven public schools in an effort to identify sources of bias and adopt alternative forms of discipline that do not remove students from school.

Dr. Duerr said she was committed to sharing details about the district’s internal work, beginning with two initial reports the Falmouth School Committee heard in its Tuesday, February 9, meeting.

“We should be intentional about this work as with all the work we do,” Dr. Duerr said. “We are taking steps and we recognize there’s room for growth and we are committed to this work.”

The presentations by Director of Student Services Joan Woodward and Falmouth High Principal Mary W. Gans were a last-minute addition to the school committee’s agenda after disciplinary practices came into the spotlight last week when differences in treatment of a Black student in 2018 were compared to that of two white students enrolled in the current school year.

A change.org petition demanding due process in the 2018 punitive measures against former Falmouth High School student Adaesia O’Garro, now a senior at Mashpee High School, has drawn 987 signatures in three weeks.

Following Dr. Duerr’s recommendation, school committee members undertook a review of disciplinary data collected from school districts annually by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The data is provided to the public through a dashboard at https://profiles.doe.mass.edu.

Dr. Woodward presented the committee with highlights from the DESE data.

DESE data show that Falmouth High School used the sharpest forms of discipline in a higher percentage of disciplinary cases than other towns in the state in both the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 school year in four categories: in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and incidences of violence.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the high school disciplined 98 students in total and in 2018-2019, it disciplined 103 students in total.

“I appreciate that we’re starting to have this conversation because it’s a conversation that frankly needs to happen and we need to do a deep dive,” said school committee vice chairman Natalie Kanellopoulos. “Hands down, if we do a quick snapshot at these statistics, it’s alarming. There’s no way else to describe that.”

Principal Gans said she has been taking steps toward developing new student discipline strategies since 2014, when Massachusetts joined other states in reforming its student discipline law to limit out-of-school punishments. Ms. Gans and Falmouth High School’s two assistant principals took workshops on restorative practices such as mediation and counseling.

In October 2019, the Falmouth Education Foundation awarded a grant to Falmouth High School for faculty to take part in professional development sessions. The workshops covered tenets of de-escalation and cultural proficiency. Further sessions planned for 2020 were cancelled when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but Ms. Gans said they will be rescheduled.

“Discipline doesn’t start at the administrative level,” Ms. Gans said. “It starts in the classroom. We’re all a team at the high school; so we want to be on the same page with how we respond to student behaviors.”

Committee members were left with questions.

“I heard a lot of different programs that are being put into place to support more understanding around potential discriminatory practices that have existed,” said school committee member Leah Palmer. “I think it would be helpful when we’re talking about restorative practice workshops to get a sense of what that is. When we’re talking about a racial justice staff committee, what does that mean? What is it you guys are doing? We hear a lot of things but I don’t know what the details are. What is really happening? Are people diving into this data? How do students feel?”

Dr. Duerr will continue to collect committee members’ questions about disciplinary practices in the schools and the item will stay on the committee’s agenda at their next meeting.

“I think we’re all trying to get to the same thing,” said committee chairwoman Kelly Welch. “We want to have an understanding of whether there are certain groups over-represented in disciplinary numbers. I don’t yet know what the right way to go about that is.”

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