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Saturday / November 18

Equity in School Discipline: A Q&A with Jessica and John Hannigan

On Tuesday, June 27, Corwin hosted a webinar with Jessica and John Hannigan on “Equity in School Discipline: Don’t Suspend Me!” Their unique approach helps educators comply with new legal requirements, create meaningful change in the behavior of at-risk students, and ultimately develop more productive and empathetic citizens. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.

We interviewed Jessica and John after the webinar to find out more about the connection between alternative approaches to discipline and the benefits to school climate, especially for students of color and students with special needs.

Q: How should we address the needs of those students that are affected by violent students? Are we not to see all sides of these issues?

Our response would change based on whether the student is returning to the school after his/her suspension. In our blog post What is the Magic Behind 3 to 5 Days of Suspension?, we highlight some key points and suggestions for these cases. It is important to note that you will have to address these situations case by case. If the student is returning to the school, there needs to be a plan in place to help both students involved in this incident to co-exist. There needs to be an intentional, ongoing monitoring and support system designed for both students in order to ensure safety and resolution.

Q: I collected some data in the last district I worked for and noticed there was a commitment to PBIS at the elementary level much more than the high school level. Is that what you see as well?

If PBIS is messaged as a program with only the banners and incentives being highlighted, high school teachers will perceive implementation to be only for younger age groups of students. However, if PBIS is articulated correctly as a tiered system of supports (school-wide, at-risk targeted, and individualized) for behavior similar to academics, it will help with buy in. You can read our blog post It’s Not PBIS That’s Not Working for some tips to help clear up common misconceptions about implementation.

Q: Are there any behaviors that would result in automatic suspension that you can’t have an alternative for?

Any of the “big 5” are an automatic recommendation for expulsion and the notification of law enforcement. Note: In these cases, we encourage a collaborative transition plan with teaching opportunities to ensure the students receive the services and supports they need. We also encourage you to collaborate with your district office lead or supervisor to work together on the transition plan.

1) Possessing, selling or furnishing a firearm.

2) Brandishing a knife at another person.

3) Unlawfully selling a controlled substance.

4) Committing or attempting to commit a sexual assault or committing a sexual battery.

5) Possession of an explosive.

Note: Systems and procedures may vary by district; work with your district office administration to develop a transitional plan and timeline accordingly.

For any other suspendable offenses, ask whether the student is returning to your campus.

You will face one of two options: suspend the student and provide teaching alternatives as part of the consequence, or keep the student on your campus and use alternatives. The one thing proven to be ineffective is suspending the student as your only means of discipline. We see schools as they begin this work, still suspend (at first) then provide alternatives once the student returns. What they see is that the student is dug into an academic hole by being away from the learning environment AND having to complete their alternatives. After time, the administrators see that since the alternatives are happening regardless (whether after they return from suspension or in place of), they may as well KEEP the student in the learning environment, provide loss of all privileges, and assign alternatives.

Q: What happens if student refuses to complete the restorative/reflective activity?

You really need to address this challenge case by case. This is why it is so critical to put in the work to get to know your students and establish relationships with them so there will be trust and buy in during these instances. It is equally important to establish relationships and trust with parents and guardians so that they help with this process. If they don’t however; do not give up on the alternative discipline, continue to collaborate with all the stakeholders to design a plan that will work for the individual student. This will not look the same for all students.

Most students would rather go home on a suspension rather than complete alternatives so let them know that isn’t an option. They may attempt to provoke you into suspending them through defiance, etc., so don’t reinforce this behavior by sending them home. Explain the current duration of their consequence and all that it will entail. If they refuse, gradually add time to the consequence so they see that they are choosing to make the situation more difficult on themselves. Involve the parents/guardians/coach/favorite teacher/influential family member to help. Whatever you say you are doing must be exactly what is followed through on or outcomes will be worse than doing nothing at all.

Again, It is key to have good relationships with your students and understand their individual needs. Some administrators and staff make the error of trying to give the alternative discipline while the student(s) and/or staff involved are not emotionally in the right place to calmly process an alternative. Assess the situation, calm down, let the student calm down before you lay out the alternative discipline plan; this may be the next day. Just make sure to inform all the stakeholders that there will be a long-term plan, but details will be hashed out as a team.

We also recommend including language in your district and school handbooks that makes it clear to students and parents that alternative discipline may be applied based on the discretion of the administrator.

Q: PBIS is starting at our school this coming year. The staff has not been briefed on this. I am afraid it will be a system that will have the looks but not the application. What do you recommend for someone like me—a teacher leader—to do?

We recommend to work through the PBIS Tier One Handbook markers as a school staff or leadership team. The handbook is designed to help build a solid foundation for PBIS. One critical marker addressed in the handbook and will need continuous nurturing and attention is establishing and maintaining staff buy in. Going through this process with your staff or leadership team will help with implementation and the understanding that PBIS is a framework to establish tiered behavior systems in schools similar to academic systems. Refer to our blog Bridging PBIS and MTSS as a guide for you as you begin this work.

Q: I work at Sanger High and we are a California Gold Ribbon School (humble brag), but I know we could be better. I feel like a lot of our suspensions are due to out of class incidents (i.e. cyberbullying, fighting, etc.) more than in-class. What can we do to prevent incidents from happening to begin with?

Awesome! Yes, even the strongest schools need to continue refining and improving areas of implementation constantly based on their school data. If your school data reflects fights and cyberbullying, as a PBIS team, you need to set SMART goals to help address these challenges. Some suggestions include:

  • Revisit your active supervision procedures and hot spots (set up check-in meetings with all supervision staff at least monthly to touch base and tighten up supervision based on need).
  • Build a student PBIS team: representatives from the PBIS student team will be asked to attend the staff PBIS team meetings and help with student voice and implementation of initiatives discussed to address the school’s needs.
  • Design a High School Challenges schedule: this is when a PBIS team puts intentional focus on the areas the behavior data reveals as needing attention. For example, a monthly challenge could be a “violence free” challenge or “cyberbullying free challenge.” With any challenge there needs to be a school-wide teaching component (awareness and skills to not engage in these behaviors), a school-wide incentive component with a goal that students are made aware of throughout the challenge. The idea here to be preventive and put systems in place to address common major incidents. We also recommend for the PBIS team to delve deeper into the data to identify students who are repeatedly getting into trouble for these behaviors, and make sure they are provided additional tiered supports based on their individual needs.

Learn More

To learn more about alternative strategies to use for the most common behavior challenges, check out Jessica and John Hannigan’s book, Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit.


About Jessica and John Hannigan

Dr. Jessica Hannigan is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership at Fresno State University. She has extensive experience in P-12 general education and special education administration at the school and district level. She also works as an educational consultant, training approximately 300 schools across the country on implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts.

Dr. John Hannigan is principal of Reagan Elementary in the Sanger Unified School District in California. Under his leadership, the school has received numerous awards and recognitions, including California State Distinguished School, Gold Ribbon School, and it has been recognized as an exemplary RTI school for both academics and behavior.

Together they are the authors of Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit, published by Corwin. Jessica is also the author of The PBIS Tier One Handbook. They are working on two new titles, The PBIS Tier Two Handbook and The PBIS Tier Three Handbook, due out this fall from Corwin.

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Matt Silver is a Marketing Assistant for Professional Learning and Staff Development at Corwin. In his free time, Matt likes to play guitar, and in the winter, can be found snowboarding in the mountains.

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