May 11, 2018

Our Children Need You to Prioritize School Climate

Kiechelle Russell Special Education Teacher

On May 14, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will celebrate the start of School Climate Week. This date is a fresh reminder of the work we all must do to keep our students safe and secure on our campuses. It also sends a chill down my spine as I think about the injustices that occur every single day across our city when we don’t treat our students fairly with the appropriate restorative justice practices needed to create safe and inclusive classrooms.

I am hopeful that when restorative justice practices are implemented with commitment and fidelity, our students will enter schools that are safe, welcoming, and loving. However, until Los Angeles Unified adopts proven, positive discipline systems, trains key staff for implementation, and develops a cabinet-level position that focuses on school climate, thousands of students will not have this school.

The overly-punitive measures that exist in districts across the country exclude students from the school community and do little to address the root cause of students’ behavior, which oftentimes stems from external factors such a poverty. This regressive approach has historically led schools disproportionate suspension of black students, boys, and students with learning disabilities compared to their classmates. Almost all of the students I teach fall into at least one of these categories and have suffered from this inequitable style of punishment.

Considering the punitive measures imparted with the intent of teaching children to manage their own behavior, our schools are in need of a practice that perpetuates atonement, inclusion, accountability, responsibility, and resolution. There are so many factors that are out of our control on a day-to-day basis; however, we can be proactive and implement policies that foster that sense of community and love students need and deserve.

As I look to my 19th year of teaching, I am optimistic about the measures and strategies that LAUSD is taking to address much of the trauma that exist within the walls of our classrooms. Through the leadership and perseverance of youth across Los Angeles, the LAUSD school board passed and enacted the 2013 School Climate Bill of Rights to ensure that restorative justice practices that help students better understand their behavior and seeks to heal the damages caused by misbehavior are implemented across all schools by 2020.

Through restorative justice, students are learning the skills that will help them make better decisions both in and outside of school. This alternative approach toward school discipline provides a safe space for building trust and relationships with students whose behaviors are oftentimes not seen as strengths and are judged before you get to know them or their situation.

My colleagues and I are hoping to further learn about and implement restorative justice practices in the upcoming year so our students can succeed academically. In the 2016-17 academic year, we had 0 percent suspension rate, 78 percent of students surveyed felt safe at the school, and 83 percent of staff feel that the school handles discipline problems fairly. While we are making gains without formal training in restorative practices, those outcomes don't always paint a complete picture so we are hoping to continue to use alternative methods to improve the school climate for all of our students. A cabinet-level position focused on school climate could help us accelerate the changes we want to see at our school.

Even though LAUSD leadership has taken steps toward implementing more restorative practices and exploring social-emotional learning programs, there needs to be an accountability measure that ensures that the district is providing students and teachers with the resources they need to be successful.

Teachers across the district have asked we prioritize safe and welcoming schools by creating a cabinet-level position focused on school climate. And you can join them.

We need a leader within the district’s cabinet who can ensure that restorative justice is implemented with fidelity be accountable for implementation and show our teachers and families that the district is serious about the physical and emotional safety of our kids.

On May 8th, Teacher Appreciation Day, a group of E4E-Los Angeles teachers hand-delivered postcards at the LAUSD School Board meeting to call on our new Superintendent to create a new cabinet-level position.

I hope that Superintendent Beutner prioritizes the safety and school climate of our students above all other priorities because this is the foundation for preparing students for academic success. As a parent and educator, I know that I will continue to keep one thing as my top priority in the classroom and at home: to ensure our children feel safe, welcomed, and engaged.

Kiechelle Russell

Kiechelle Russell, a special education teacher at Cowan Elementary, is a member of E4E-Los Angeles and the UTLA House of Representatives.