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Cloquet considers ‘wRight’ model for in-school suspension

With help from other Northland school districts, suspended students in Cloquet and surrounding communities may soon be able to “do the wRight thing.”

Cloquet Middle School Principal Tom Brenner recently traveled to Wright County to learn about that area’s “wRight Choice” program, which serves as an alternative educational tool for students who would otherwise be serving suspensions.

Brenner will make a presentation to the Cloquet School Board on the Wright County program at its Monday night meeting.

“The problem we have now is that if the student’s home situation isn’t right, the student gets suspended, goes home upset for three days and comes back to school still upset,” Brenner said. “We don’t address the behavioral issues that can solve issues instead of leading to more suspensions.”

And, according to Superintendent Ken Scarbrough, lost learning time.

“Zero learning takes place when a student is home suspended,” Scarbrough said. “The kids may wind up going home and playing video games instead of doing homework and we know they are missing out on instruction time.”

That’s where the Wright County program comes in.

Suspended students in Wright County go to a special area where they receive time for homework, teacher time — and along the way, perhaps even a visit from officers of the law.

That’s not intended to be punitive, but rather educational.

“I’ve had best success with suspending students who have shelter contracts,” Brenner said. “When they are suspended, they have a place to go with guaranteed structure and that does help.”

While suspensions are not a major problem in Cloquet — the district ranks well below state averages in suspensions according to Scarbrough — Brenner says the Wright program has merit.

“When we were down there (in March), we watched how those students were handled,” Brenner said. “One day they got a visit from law enforcement to talk with them about choices. One day a judge came in to talk to the students. Wright County has a great model.”

The Wright program has five steps: private discussion of the incident that led to suspension, discussion of barriers to good critical thinking, a discussion of basic needs, finding solutions and finally, restorative justice, all done one-on-one with a teacher.

In the final action, students write letters detailing the reasons for their suspension, what they will do in the future for an action plan to address the issue, and how the student will stay on track.

In the afternoon, suspended students perform community service.  Brenner said that during his tour, kids stuffed food bags for the local food shelf.

While that may all seem a bit like a “Kumbaya” approach, Brenner and Scarbrough say it does in fact scratch the disciplinary itch that these students have.

“The problem is that suspension as currently handled does nothing at all to address behavior,” Brenner said. “It’s supposed to be about changing behavior.”

“You don’t want to overgeneralize,” Scarbrough said, “but you want to be proactive. Some kids really do want to change, but we want to address behavior and consequences instead of it being a lost day out of school.”

Brenner said an administrator in the wRight Choice program put it a different way.

“He said that we have remedial programs for students who might fail in math or reading or science, but we didn’t have remedial programs for behavior and that was frustrating,” Brenner said. “Now, they do and it’s a great model.”

However, in the Northland, it will require a cooperative effort among school districts to make such a program work.

“We couldn’t afford it on our own,” Scarbrough said. “We would need help.”

Brenner said the Proctor and Barnum school districts have indicated a willingness to take part.

“Both of them can have students bussed to our CAAEP (Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program) site anyway,” Brenner said. “So that is a start.”

The end goal is, of course, to eliminate the type of behavior that leads both to incidents as well as to repeat incidents if not addressed.

“Suspending is not an easy decision,” Brenner said. “You do have to remove kids from the situation, though, but ultimately they will have to re-enter the building and we want to be able to take some (behavioral) steps. We want what is right for that child, as well as the other 530 children I have in my building.”