Not long after Clive Coleman took over as superintendent of Riverview Gardens Schools, he found a problem that last year had cost the struggling north St. Louis County district more than $1.3 million in state aid.
The problem also had kept students out of school for almost 38,000 days, exacerbating the district's poor test scores and already high dropout rate.
The culprit was out-of-school suspensions, which were often being given for minor infractions such as running in the hallways or tardiness.
"The suspension, the end product, never results in the resolution of the problem," Coleman said. "The consequence is a punitive measure."
Now the Riverview Gardens district is joining other urban districts in replacing many out-of-school suspensions with in-school suspension as a way to keep problem students off the streets and in a classroom setting. St. Louis Public Schools, to name one district, has reduced maximum suspensions to five days from 10 days for such offenses as truancy or flinging objects out the window of a school bus.
It's an approach that detractors say could sacrifice safety in the name of keeping students in class. But it's one that supporters say properly aligns discipline with the severity of offenses.
The shift is driven, in part, by finances.
Every day a student is absent means the school district receives less funding from the state, because money flows based on attendance. And those funding concerns have been amplified as school districts look for ways to reclaim money lost from falling local education revenue and stagnant state spending.
The Riverview Gardens district is testing a program at Central Middle School, where outbursts and disruption have long been problems. Two classrooms at Lewis & Clark Elementary School and seven classrooms in the St. Sebastian building on Chambers Avenue have been set aside for Central students who misbehave in a nonviolent way. One instructor for every 12 suspended students helps them keep up with class work.
Coleman hopes to expand the program in January to fifth-graders and students at Westview Middle School. Next fall, the program would expand to include high school students, who also would be required to attend Saturday school, do community service and take a conflict resolution class if caught misbehaving.
"I don't want to send kids home for suspension in minor offenses that won't result in a change in behavior," Coleman said.
The changing approach toward discipline has attracted criticism from the teachers union, which accuses the new superintendent of not being tough enough on bad behavior.
Richard Thies, president of the Riverview Gardens NEA, said teachers felt pressure to keep disruptive students in class rather than request their suspension from the principal.
Earlier this month, students at Central Middle School brought eggs to school and threw them at other children. Also this month, an off-duty police officer at the high school sprayed pepper spray into a crowd of students when they became unruly.
Coleman said that students who misbehaved like this were disciplined on an individual basis, and that the district still had no tolerance toward violent or disrespectful behavior.
Thies, however, says disruptive students aren't being removed as they should be from classrooms.
"The district's philosophy of keeping out-of-control students in the classroom at all costs steal(s) educational time from all of the other students at Riverview Gardens," he said in a statement posted on the Internet.
Across Missouri, many other districts are reconsidering out-of-school suspensions for disruptive students, said Kelli Hopkins, an associate executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association.
Districts are driven not only by finances but by pressure to improve results on standardized exams.
"I don't think suspension teaches the suspended child anything," said Hopkins, a former assistant principal at a junior high school. However, "under certain circumstances it does allow the rest of the class to learn."
State law requires automatic suspension for students who bring weapons or drugs to school, or commit violent acts. But it's up to school boards, superintendents and principals to determine what punishment students are to get for other bad behavior.
In St. Louis, a 'school within a school" is to be set up next month inside Beaumont High School near Natural Bridge Road and Grand Boulevard, using separate classrooms for many students who otherwise would get out-of-school suspensions.
But at other schools in the area, such as Confluence Academy charter schools, students as young as kindergartners receive suspension every week for such things as mouthing off, pushing other students and leaving the classroom without permission.
In September, 30 students out of about 950 received out-of-school suspension at Confluence Academy's four campuses, according to data provided to its board of directors this month. Half of those suspensions were for behavior considered nonviolent.
In Riverview Gardens, bad behavior resulted in 5,012 out-of-school suspensions last year, according to district spokeswoman Michelle Mueller. The Riverview Gardens district has about 6,500 students.
Coleman said his approach was not soft on misconduct.
"Criminal activity will not be tolerated under any circumstance, or disrespect," he said. "If there's a conflict resulting in a fight, we don't tolerate that. But we're not just arbitrarily putting kids out without having the resources to assist them."