Chris Schulz Published

Raleigh County Schools Embrace Alternative Approach To School Discipline Issues

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An increase in disciplinary issues in schools is leading to a new approach in elementary schools across the state. 

Rather than send students with the most serious disciplinary issues to a virtual learning or traditional Homebound program, Raleigh County has implemented an intensive academy that aims to address the traumas and triggers that are the core cause of the students’ behaviors.

Allen Sexton, director of special education for Raleigh County Schools, told the interim meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Education Sunday, Jan. 7 about the county’s alternative education program for elementary schools. 

He said it was developed after observing similar existing programs in other counties such as Monongalia County and adapting it to fit Raleigh’s needs. Named the RCSD Four Academy, Sexton called it the fourth tier of academic support for the county’s elementary school students with severe disciplinary issues.

“We call it ‘T-4’ because we know that next layer of support that teachers are expecting, they know we can’t provide it at the school level,” he said. “Administrators at the school level and teachers are saying ‘Please help. We don’t know what to do next.’”

Sexton walked the legislators through the support process, starting with teaching students how to behave, observation of disciplinary issues in the classroom and finally to determining whether students have a disability or a conduct disorder.

“The labeling of a student with a disability is not a benign act, that is a label that follows them lifelong,” he said. “A lot of conduct disorders mirror a disability. My job as the special education director is to protect IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) and make sure that we provide supports to students with disabilities, but I also am to make sure we’re not over-identifying. We don’t want to mislabel someone that will follow them the rest of their life.” 

Many of the students that have been identified by the new program have high Adverse Childhood Experience scores, Sexton said, meaning they have had childhood trauma that manifests in negative behavior in the classroom. He said that data from traditional, exclusionary alternative education, such as virtual learning or Homeward Bound programs, showed behaviors did not improve when students returned to the classroom. 

“When they come back, they often have the same or worse behaviors than what they did previously, so we’re dealing with those again,” Sexton said. “That’s what our board recognized in 2016, 17 is that we’re seeing the same behaviors.”

In comparison, Sexton said that only two of the 35 students that have gone through the new program since its implementation in 2019 have repeated high-level behaviors. He attributes that success to low student to teacher ratios – there are currently only eight students in the program – as well as specialized support.

“Those educators collaborate together with three aides…because as you can imagine, when you’re working with students that have the most challenging or difficult behaviors, you can reach your saturation point as well, you need a break,” he said. 

The extra help ensures that everyone can maintain a very high level of professionalism and support for students. Sexton said students tend to participate in the program for six to nine months before being transitioned back to school with support, which includes teaching the teachers about the students’ needs and best practices.

“We’ve had a very high success rate, only having one student ever pulled back from the school setting, back to the T4 setting to provide additional support because the transition didn’t go well,” he said. 

Del. Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, asked about the involvement of the families of disruptive students in the program. Sexton replied that families must agree to the terms of the program before a student is involved in the program, which includes a weekly family engagement day.

“Those days, sometimes families visit the center, they receive parent education, sometimes they perform tasks with their children,” he said. “Other times they report to our Community Health Agency, and they receive their family therapy or their individual therapies as well.”
Senate President Craig Blair indicated during a legislative lookahead event Friday that alternative education for disruptive students will be a focus for lawmakers in the upcoming regular session which begins Wednesday, Jan. 10.