RANTOUL – Three years ago, Larry Maynard faced a challenge – curbing out-of-control behavior in the halls and classrooms at Rantoul Township High School.
Maynard, then in his first year as the school's only dean, was in despair, giving prayerful consideration to how to solve that dilemma. "I asked, 'How can I help these kids?'" he said.
He came up with an answer, a 12-step plan that spells out disciplinary procedures and improves communications for everyone – students, parents and teachers. Ironically, the plan is working, but discipline numbers remain startlingly high because it's systematically removing disruptive students from the classroom.
Last year, about 40 percent or 311 of Rantoul's 800 students served three or more detentions the first semester of school. Suspensions for the year numbered 470, served by 154 students, almost 20 percent of the student body.
"We're down the road, we've seen positive results, but there's no silver bullet," Maynard said.
He and other school officials see positive signs, chief among them the fact that by far the largest number of suspensions were handed out to freshmen – 44 freshmen who earned 184 suspensions – and incidences dropped significantly with each class. Only 12 seniors earned suspensions.
Overall, Maynard said, disciplinary numbers haven't changed much the last few years. But Principal Scott Amerio said the atmosphere at the school has changed, and he's expecting continued improvement.
"Before, we talked about better control, and that was reactive," said Amerio, principal for four years. "Now we say, 'When this happens, this is what we'll do,' and that's proactive. The teachers like the structure the 12-step plan has created. The climate is definitely better."
"When I came here, students weren't used to having consequences," Maynard said. "We were coming off the heels of lots of fights in the halls. It felt like a crisis. Now we feel like we're doing more planning and prevention instead of reacting. And prevention's a lot more fun."
"We needed structure," said Emily Weidner, who taught history for six years until she was recently named a dean. "We needed a framework for teachers and students. The discipline workload was more than one person could handle. Parent notification didn't exist."
Maynard's plan starts with 50-minute detentions before or after school, and as offenses continue, moves to Saturday school assignment, started last year so students spend their own time meeting discipline obligations. It ends at step 12, after at least four student, parent and principal conferences, with 10 days out-of-school suspension and school board review.
"That's the piece you really don't want to get to," Maynard said, adding that teachers and administrators make sure work goes home to students serving longer suspensions so they can keep up with their class. About 90 of the 470 total suspensions were for four to 10 days.
Gross misconduct – fighting, drugs, alcohol and weapons on campus – moves students right on to maximum penalties, 10 days suspension and possible recommendation for expulsion.
Amerio said the school didn't expel any students last year, and he counts that as progress, because there had been several each year.
Maynard said improving communications was one key to making the plan work. Now everyone uses the same disciplinary referral forms, and teachers find out exactly what happens to their students. Parents and students get copies of the 12-step plan every summer, and they're included in every step of the process.
"We're getting more support from home," Maynard said. "Improved communications take the hostility out of situations."
With students, the message is always the same. "We make discipline sequential, progressive and immediate so they can put it behind them," he said. "We talk about the past, the present and the future, about how if this continues, here's what's going to happen."
Amerio is taking other steps to address discipline concerns. He's talking to officials at Rantoul City Schools, a separate district, about cooperative programs at J.W. Eater Junior High School to prepare youngsters there to meet expectations at high school.
Amerio's also talking to officials at the University of Illinois and community organizations about sending tutors to the school to help kids who have fallen behind and are frustrated, a combination that often leads to misbehavior. He said the district will likely provide transportation.
"Our goal is to have every student have a goal after high school and to know what it takes to reach it," he said. "Otherwise what they're doing in the classroom has no effect on their future. Our goal too is to have every student in the school have an adult advocate. Usually, that's Mom and Dad, but sometimes it's not."
Although the district's demographics haven't changed significantly in three years, one indicator often linked to poor performance and behavior has – a poverty rate that has jumped from 23.5 percent of all students in 2002 to 45 percent in 2005. The school's mobility rate – the percentage of students who move in and out of the school district during the year – has remained at about 25 percent.
Maynard and Amerio said they refuse to use those numbers as excuses.
"We're doing professional development to understand these issues, to use the experiences of those children so we can help them," Amerio said.
Suspensions are costly because they reduce average daily attendance, the foundation for state aid. But neither Amerio nor Maynard have added up those costs.
"To me, the cost is more what it costs the student," Maynard said.