Podcast: How Schools Can Help New Students Adjust
How CPI training can significantly reduce restraint when new and challenging students enter a district
When a school district has CPI’s Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training in place for an appreciable length of time and it has become an internalized, institutional asset, one of the benefits it carries is the way it can help schools reduce restraint use when new and challenging students enter the district. In this podcast interview, Student Services Director Becky Eckhardt and 6-12 At-Risk Coordinator Michele Brand of Nebraska’s South Sioux City Community Schools explain how CPI training and the culture it helps create dramatically reduces restraint use as new and sometimes challenging students become accustomed to their schools.
Nebraska’s South Sioux City Community Schools – demographic facts
The schools that serve Nebraska’s South Sioux City community have on average about 3,900 students. Becky describes the population as diverse: “About 19% of them are ELL (English language learner) or second language learners. Over 70% are minority and about 13% are special education students. So we have quite a diverse student population.” (2:22)
In the district, there is one high school serving about 1,300 students, one middle school with about 900 students, an early childhood center that serves preschool and kindergarten, and five K-5 elementary schools.
The economy in the South Sioux City area is largely driven by the meat-packing industry. According to Becky, “We have Tyson Foods, a large meat-packing plant that employs a large number of our parents. There are also a couple other meat-packing plants in our area. So I'd say that that is probably the number-one employer by far. In our area, we do have very high free and reduced lunch in our district. I don't have the percentage right in front of me, but I believe it's in the 70% of free and reduced lunch. So we are dealing with some families that have challenges. And as a school system, we really try to provide a variety of supports and services—not just academics—to support our family.” (13:02)
I asked if the district then possibly had a number of students that come to school who are challenged at the beginning of the day in ways that are not immediately visible because of the area where they live and the economic culture that they come from.
“Yeah, absolutely,” replied Becky. “The beginning of the day, some of our kids really struggle coming off of long weekends and breaks. And so, that, I think, is especially important that our staff are mindful of the subtle behaviors that our kids are presenting and how can we use those de-escalation strategies to help support the student and avoid the escalation that comes with stress or adjusting from home life to school life.” (14:12)
CPI training in South Sioux City Community Schools
CPI training began in South Sioux City Community Schools back in 2003, and Becky explains that it was chosen because at that time the district didn’t have any training or processes in place when student behavior became challenging or physical. “And so the team at that time identified CPI as a model that fit our beliefs in South Sioux City Schools. At that time, we really restricted our training to our special education staff. But since that, we've grown it dramatically,” explains Becky. “We not only train all our student services staff, but we've trained all our school counselors. Every administrator in South Sioux City is trained as well as many, many general education staff and support staff. Our long-term goal is to have 100% of our staff trained. We believe it has changed our climate and how adults respond to students in crisis.” (3:18)
Michele went on to add that all CPI-trained employees receive refresher training once per year at the beginning of the school year. Michele estimates that about 50% of school staff have received CPI training.
Why the CPI-influenced culture is so important at South Sioux City Community Schools
With a student population that may often come to school already struggling, and with new families often migrating to the city for employment opportunities, I asked Becky and Michele to describe how CPI training had improved the school culture overall, and what successes the program had inspired.
Michele replied enthusiastically. “Some of the successes that we've had is, you know, sometimes we'll have students move into the district that are in crisis. And they'll go to a building that has not had restraints or not even had the need to use them. And what CPI has allowed us to do is utilize that common language. We can establish a plan, expectations, and then get to know our students to be able to de-escalate those behaviors. So you know, those kids that are in crisis, that's why our numbers drop off is because we figure out a plan to meet them so we can avoid using restraints.” (5:32)
The numbers Michele is referring to are displayed on the chart below.
As we can see on the chart, which categorizes restraint and escort usage by year and school, during the 2012–2013 school year, the district used restraint 87 times. In the 2014–2015 school year, restraint was used only 20 times, a decrease of 77%.
I ask if the dramatic drop in restraint between these two school years is due to staff getting to know and learning how to de-escalate new and sometimes challenging or acting-out students. Michele replies: “It's knowing how to de-escalate those behaviors, recognizing when they're leading to a crisis and how can we stop it from escalating. And then the staff working together, you know, CPI gives that common language for staff so they can handle conversations and they can problem solve. It's really helped those teams because typically, our children that are restrained are special population kids.” (6:50)
What we see here is an evidenced-based demonstration of how CPI culture, once in place in a school, effectively minimizes challenging behavior as students learn the values in place in their new schools.
Proposed Nebraska SB 595, to provide for the physical force, restraint, or removal from class in response to student behavior
After years of advocacy by civil rights and disability advocates, many school districts and states have scaled back policies that allow for physical restraint in schools, often using for example the violent incidents that have resulted in student trauma, injury, and death. However, Nebraska Senator Mike Groene introduced a bill in January, SB 595, that would expand the use of physical force and restraint in the state’s public schools. Under the legislation, school staff could use physical restraint on students who act out physically, and the bill would also allow teachers to use physical restraint on students exhibiting destructive behavior toward school property.
I asked Becky and Michele to share their reactions to this bill, and whether it was celebrated, vilified, or perhaps a little of both by teachers and administrators at the school. Becky responded first: “My understanding is it partially came out of a school legislation case where possibly a teacher felt that a student wasn't ready to return to class and for whatever reason, the student was returned to class before that teacher felt that it was safe to do so. And so I think this is an attempt to make school safer and provide additional support for teachers. I'm not confident that how it's written does what it's intended to do.” (15:30)
To give people listening to the interview a clearer picture of the legislation, I then read a couple sections of the bill: "A bill for an act relating to the Student Discipline Act . . . to provide for use of physical force or physical restraint or removal from a class in response to student behavior; to harmonize revisions; and to repeal the original section." And then it enacts Section Two which says, "If a student becomes physically violent toward himself or herself, a teacher, an administrator, or another student, a teacher or administrator may use necessary physical force or physical restraint to subdue such student until such student no longer presents a danger to himself or herself, the teacher, the administrator, or the other student." (16:12) I then ask if they think that the bill could carry the unintended consequence of diluting the culture of verbal de-escalation that schools work so hard to accomplish.
Michele replies: “I happen to have in front of me [a publication] our teacher union, The Voice, of the Nebraska State Education Association, and they did a poll that said 61% of the 7,000-teacher poll said their biggest problem in the classroom is unruly and disruptive students. And my concern with this bill the way it's stated because this article proceeds to go on to say kids are coming to school with mental and physical trauma. The solution isn't to throw them out. It's how to get them the help they need to deal with their issues. Extensive training in de-escalation and student restraint is important for educators.
So to me, I agree with that but I don't think that bill says there's a need for training if you can physically remove a child. I think they're missing that education component because my curiosity is the schools where staff don't feel safe, are they trained in CPI? Do they have some kind of de-escalation system in place, or how do you deal with high-stress kids or high-need kids?
And so that's what I feel is missing from that [Bill 595]. I think we can agree that, yes, some teachers don't feel safe. But to say we're gonna be able to do this to children without providing that training, I think you're missing that opportunity to do those things. And if you have students with mental and physical trauma and then school puts their hands on them, those children are going to be traumatized again.” (17:24)
Becky then makes some final points regarding policy as it relates to safety in schools and how it could be affected by SB 595: “I think we should have classrooms that are safe, and if a student is unsafe, I do think we should be able to remove them, determine what appropriate supports are needed for that student, and put those in place to avoid the safety risk. But like you said, without the provisions of some staff training and to spell out, they go straight in this bill to physical restraint and physical removal. There is no de-escalation prior to that.
There's no defining of, it says in the bill, that they can use physical force when the student is at risk of destroying school property. Well, what kind of school property are we talking about here? There's quite a range there that I think we just need to put some definitions with some of the words that are used in this bill because without that, I just worry that staff without training, and without definitions to this bill, I worry about what could happen in some of our classrooms and to what could happen to some of our students.” (20:58)
Becky Eckhardt earned a master's degree in speech language pathology from the University of Minnesota Duluth and began her work with the South Sioux City Community Schools as a preschool speech language pathologist. From there, she progressed to the at-risk education lead teacher, then an elementary principal, and is now the student services director.
Michele Brand earned a graduate degree in behavior disorders and instructional strategy from Morningside College, and since 2004, she has acted as South Sioux City Schools 6-12 at-risk coordinator. In 2015, she was awarded the local ABC network affiliate KCAU's “My Favorite Teacher” Award.