MPS’s CO merry-go-round

Merry Go Round by Mr.Thomas, on Flickr

Merry Go Round by Mr.Thomas, on Flickr,

A number of years back, I taught a student – let’s call him Johnny – who got caught allegedly selling marijuana in the school bathroom.  Johnny wasn’t a bad student, not great academically but pleasant and respectful in class.  But that incident put him on the CO list.

In the Milwaukee Public Schools, “CO” is short for “central office,” which itself is short for, roughly, “a five-day suspension pending a hearing at central office regarding the removal of a student from his current school and placement into another.”

To be clear, this is not an expulsion hearing; MPS expels a relative handful of students annually, for very serious offenses, but conducts many hundreds* of CO hearings a year.

(*I’m extrapolating based on my own observations over the years; when I’ve asked MPS about CO data in the past, I’ve gotten a runaround.)

This is also not a hearing about getting a student treatment or counseling or adjusted meds or anything positive that might change an at-risk student’s trajectory. It’s simply about plucking a student out of one school and dropping him – usually, it’s a him – into some other school mid-year.

CO hearings happen for just a few reasons. Drug offenses, like Johnny’s.  Weapons possession (not use – that’s an expulsion). Chronic violence against other students. Any violence against staff.

The theory is this: that student is incompatible with that particular educational environment and, therefore, may need to be placed into one that can better suit his needs, where he won’t feel the need to act out and engage in behavior that disrupts the school.

Johnny’s class was being taught by a student teacher at the time of the incident, and so I had to explain all of this to him.  As an outsider unused to the way MPS does business, my student teacher was incredulous.  “So,” he asked, “they’re just going to move Johnny to a different school?”

“Yep,” I said.

“Where, magically, he won’t sell weed anymore?”

You see the problem. Shunting Johnny from my high school to some other high school wasn’t going to make a difference in Johnny’s chosen career path.  The legal consequences Johnny faced – he did spend some quality time with Milwaukee’s finest after his incident – may have made a difference, but just shuffling him around the district does nothing for him.

(You might think that students like Johnny or gang-bangers or those who just have to challenge authority would get sent to some “alternative” school.  You would be wrong; MPS strictly limits the available “alternative seats” to a fraction of the number of COs – although Superintendent Thornton slightly expanded that number earlier this month.)

Every CO hearing is a giant time-suck. When Johnny got COed, each of his teachers had paperwork, which, when done right, is a good 20-minute process, so two-plus teacher man-hours. Someone in the main office has to distribute, collect, collate that paperwork, along with a discipline history and statements from witnesses and other relevant documents, so another two to three man-hours. An administrator from the school has to gather this evidence, drive over to central office, sit through the hearing and make the case for removal, so another two man-hours.  Plus the hearing officer from central office, and the time taken by parents and advocates.  Multiplied by the number of times this happens across the district – likely well over 1000 times a year – you can imagine what a tremendous drain of resources the CO process is.

The result of all of that is, in many cases, nothing. In my near 15 years in the district, I have seen that between and third and half of CO hearings don’t actually move a child. When he comes back to school, then, he’s been out for a week or two or more, and is therefore behind in all his classes. Plus, he’s now potentially resentful of what just happened – he’s sitting in classes with teachers who have all put their name to a list of his faults and failures, not to mention the administrators who advocated his removal, the kids he was fighting with in the first place, and so on. This is a situation fraught with challenge.

And when it works, and a student is dropped from one school and sent to another, it creates its own challenges, from, again, his being behind in class to the potential disruption of the new school’s learning environment.  For every child a school successfully COs, there’s an open seat to receive some other school’s undesirable cast-off, whom the new school may well need to CO down the line.

For, indeed, many of the students getting COed are repeaters. MPS has a hard-core group of middle and high school students who ride this CO merry-go-round from school to school to school (and sometimes back again), without ever changing their behavior or getting an education.

This is the paragraph where I might be expected to blame somebody and demand that he or she fix the problem.  But, as with so many other things in MPS, there’s no one person to blame.  You can’t blame schools for wanting to remove disruptive or violent or criminal students from their halls.  The CO policy long predates Supt. Thornton or any of the current board members.  This generation of students has grown up with this procedure as the norm.

It’s a systemic issue, a function that is so deeply ingrained in MPS at this point that it’s almost autonomic, like breathing.  But it is such a profoundly bad policy. It needs to change.

Ideally, the answer is that students stop coming to school with drugs to sell or neighborhood scores to settle or anger that needs an outlet.  MPS can’t control that. The best we can do is probably more alternative settings where chronically disruptive students can get help.  Stop the merry-go-round that fails schools and fails children and instead truly intervene in these students’ lives.

How to pay for it, well, that’s another post.

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