Helping, not dumping, disruptive pupils. Washington, D.C., school system tries an alternative program

School administrators in the District of Columbia are tightening discipline with a new twist. High school and junior high students caught with weapons or drugs automatically are suspended for 25 days, but at least some will be given an alternative to spending that time at home or in the streets.

A program called PAUSE (Providing an Alternative Unique School Environment) enables those who qualify to spend up to two semesters of intensive counseling designed to get at the causes of their antisocial behavior.

Program developer J. Weldon Greene says PAUSE departs from the ``dumping ground'' atmosphere characterizing many alternative educational settings for problem students.

The basic objective of the program, in which the district has invested $1 million, is getting the students back into the mainstream.

The school district's discipline code was revised last year after two students were shot and another 30 were arrested for possession and sale of drugs.

Under the old rules students guilty of these rules violations could not be suspended for more than 10 days, and no suspension was automatic. Under the new code such infractions bring an automatic 25-day expulsion.

With new rules have come new insights. Officials say strict rules alone only address symptoms and fail to root out the causes of negative behavior, in effect transferring the problem from school to the street.

PAUSE will couple a 17-to-1 student-teacher ratio. The program will be able to handle 75 pupils this year and 150 next year, says school district spokeswoman Janice Cromer.

Mr. Greene says, ``We will have a doctor, nurse, social workers, psychologists, teachers, and teacher's aides working together to get students ready to go back to their schools.'' Regular course work will proceed along with special programs.

Ms. Cromer says admission of students will begin next month. Students are referred to the program by their principals; their applications are then screened to determine whether they are likely to benefit from PAUSE. Parents, program officials, teachers, and the student sign a contract that clearly sets out what is required for return to a regular school.

``Ironically,'' Cromer says, ``this has been our quietest year thus far. But it's only a matter of time. Most principals polled estimated they would have at least one to four students in need of this program.''

Marion Blakey of the United States Department of Education says studies indicate 36 percent of school principals nationwide attribute inability to keep order to lack of alternative placements. Less than half of US school systems have such placements available.

Education Department figures for the first nine months of 1986 showed 37,000 student drug arrests nationwide, with 144,000 other incidents of lawbreaking.

Some educational and behavioral specialists disagree with attempts to keep disruptive students in school at all costs.

Rutgers University sociology Prof. Jackson Toby says, ``There comes a time when one has to temporarily give up. School is not just a building to house warm bodies. If learning isn't taking place, there have got to be some trade-offs.''

Glen Scrimger of the National School Safety Center says Dr. Toby's recommendation is, in effect, the common practice.

``It's a real rarity when students are returned to mainstream academic settings,'' he says. ``The usual rule is removal.

``These are the kids who will be criminals in adult life,'' Toby warns. ``If PAUSE is trying to bring these kids back into the system, it's a good thing.''

Gary Gottfredson, research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, says progress cannot occur in a vacuum.

Dr. Gottfredson says the problems in urban schools are inextricably tied to larger social policies.

``White people have extracted themselves from urban centers and don't care what happens to disruptive youth who are mostly minorities and boys,'' he charges.

``We have to have some courageous social policy that will stop the segregation of our cities,'' Gottfredson adds.

He explains that one school of thought believes negative behavior is exacerbated in alternative settings because youth with bad attitudes and drug involvement are grouped together.

``City schools have less resources, and teachers don't want to work there, so you create a situation that feeds itself,'' he says.

Angela Hill, the student member on the Washington, D.C., school board, says pupils involved in drug abuse and violence are ``crying out for attention.''

She says PAUSE is letting students know that the administration is taking a ``firm stand,'' tempered by a refusal to define them as ``outcasts.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.