Black & White: Middle Schools Discipline With BIST Intentions

Aug 26, 2015

Adijah William (right) and her friend Kayla Sisson both got sent to the Safe Seat and the Buddy Room in 7th grade.
Credit Dusty Rhodes / WUIS/Illinois Issues

In 2007, Springfield middle schools began implementing a new discipline system that allows teachers to send a kid to the corner for infractions as minor as rolling their eyes. 

Mike Zimmers, president of the District 186 School Board, was principal at Jefferson Middle School when he brought BIST to Springfield. 

BIST stands for Behavior Intervention Support Team.

“What this program does, it cuts out a lot of dialogue between student and teacher,” he says.

It was developed in a Kansas City residential treatment center for adolescents, and is now used in a few hundred districts across the Midwest.

“I might say to you, ‘Dusty, I need for you to quit talking.’ If you continue to want to talk, the teacher would say, ‘Dusty, I need for you to move to the Safe Seat.’ "

Mike Zimmers
Credit Springfield School District 186

If my bad behavior continues, I’ll be escorted to the Buddy Room, which is a Safe Seat in some other classroom. Teachers are free to put the Safe Seat wherever they want, and it’s often a desk in the corner or facing a wall, with little or no view of the chalkboard. These maneuvers don’t fit the definition of “exclusionary discipline,” since the Safe Seat is inside a “learning environment," but that doesn’t mean the student is able to learn anything.

Of course, no student should be allowed to disrupt class. But BIST also has a list of “gateway behaviors” that can land a kid in the Safe Seat. The list includes fake coughing, eye rolling, and laying your head on the desk. 

Adijah William, who graduated from high school last year, experienced this in 7th grade.

Adijah: “I got in trouble I guess for like tapping my pencil, just like trying to think as I was writing, and he got, like, irritated I guess with it, and told me to go to the Safe Seat.”

Reporter: “Did you know that you were in the Safe Seat for tapping your pencil?”

Adijah: “At first I did not. And then he told me, he’s like, ‘I can’t take it anymore. Get out my room!’ and told me to go to the Buddy Room.”

Marty Huitt, the director of BIST, probably wouldn’t endorse what happened to Adijah. Huitt trained Springfield teachers to use each intervention as a way to counsel the student on how to make better decisions.

Huitt: “It’s all about ‘You’re not in trouble, but you’re not meeting the standard right now, so let’s get you to a place where you can meet the standard.' ”

Most teachers use these interventions sparingly, but some send kids to the Safe Seat hundreds of times in a school year. At Jefferson Middle School, one teacher has moved kids at least 1,200 times each of the past three years. Last year, at Washington Middle School, one teacher moved kids 1,844 times. That averages out to more than 10 per day.

More often than not, those students are black.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, District 186 developed a computer program to count interventions by race. The DATA show that, at Grant Middle School, black students received more than 65 percent of BIST interventions, but they make up less than 40 percent of the student population. At Jefferson and Washington, the disparity is somewhat lower. But at Franklin, where black students account for 32 percent of the enrollment, they got 70 percent of the BIST interventions last year.

Margaret Notch
Credit courtesy of Margaret Notch

Margaret Notch taught at Washington during the program’s pilot phase, and used only 165 interventions in a single year.

“The point is -- you’re trying to keep kids here, you’re trying to help them internalize their behaviors,  you’re believing that they’re good people, who are just having bad issues,” she says.

But Notch says not all of her colleagues used the Safe Seat and Buddy Room to counsel kids; some used it as quick and easy punishment.

"It’s these adults that are afraid of kids. That’s really what it is," Notch says. "They’re afraid of losing control, they’re afraid of not getting respect.”

District 186 plans to continue using BIST, and Huitt, the BIST director, is confident that most parents would approve.

“When you’re talking about kids who struggle with behavior," Huitt says, "you’re not talking about the majority of children in your school. You’re talking about the minority of kids in your school, right? So what most parents, whose children don’t struggle, love, is that there’s less disruption in the classroom.”


Clarification: In this interview, Zimmers says BIST trainer Marty Huitt is paid $1,250 "per visit." Huitt's visits last three days, and she is paid $1,250 plus expenses per day.

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