Michael Spearman knows firsthand the consequences of harshly punishing students for misbehavior, as opposed to figuring out the underlying cause.
In addition to his day job as lead behavior specialist for Shelby County Schools, he has spent more than two decades as an officer and detective with the Memphis Police Department. If the school system can’t address a student’s behavior, those students are more likely to enter the justice system as teens or adults. This reality for many students, especially students of color, is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Now that the Memphis school system has been able to add back behavior specialists and other personnel meant to meet students’ emotional needs, Spearman says there’s hope to disrupt the pipeline.
His team of about two dozen behavior specialists, in addition to meeting with students who have been suspended to get to the “why” behind their misbehavior, are working with school staff on classroom management, creating and using meaningful alternatives to out-of-school suspension, and reducing time students are out of school.
This year, behavior specialists will initiate small “restorative circles” at 15 schools. People connected to the student — for example a teacher or another school staffer, a pastor, a family member — gather to talk about the student’s behavior and determine next steps. Too often, advocates say, schools skip over alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, which contribute to students losing motivation to study or open the opportunity to get involved in petty or violent crime.
Chalkbeat sat down with Spearman to talk about strategies that have resulted in students changing their behavior. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How do you see your roles interplaying with each other? How does each job impact the other?
In the Memphis Police Department, I’ve always worked in roles where I dealt with youth and the community. When I first graduated from the academy, I patrolled all of the public housing projects in Memphis, and provided community activities and services for the youth in the housing developments. I was one of the lead community officers where I oversaw the Boy Scouts, coached in the Police Athletic League, and was one the lead mentors.
From that, I really realized I had a passion for education. Working in public housing, my shift was from 4 p.m. to midnight. So, I decided to apply to be a substitute teacher. I knew I wanted to go into education, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Would I have to leave the police department? Could I stay? I started substitute teaching at both Bellevue Middle and Vance Middle schools and got my teaching certification.
From there, I was blessed to work as an officer at Bellevue and Vance schools. Being in that role introduced me to education and the processes as far as academics and behavior. I served as a mentor, counselor, anything an officer could be in the building. My thing was building relationships with parents, with the staff, and students.
I was then tapped to serve with the FBI with the Internet Crimes Against Children unit — we arrested producers of child pornography, sex offenders. I took some courses through the FBI about behavior triggers of sexual molesters and interviewed criminals or people with behavior issues. That’s when I saw my career coming full circle.
Meaning, you saw those behavior triggers in students you had worked with?
Right. When I was with the FBI, I said, “Wow, this has something to do with the educational piece.” After the FBI, I came back to the Memphis Police Department and worked with the sex crimes unit for children 13 and under who had been abused.
I was interviewing based on their behaviors and triggers — why they do what they do. That’s when I started noticing the defendants were becoming younger. And there were some defendants I knew from working in the schools. That solidified why I’m doing what I’m doing, understanding why things happen, and that I wanted to make a difference.
Tell me about your previous role at Cypress Middle School as a family engagement specialist.
I worked with the principal to build the culture of the school. We wanted to decrease chronic absenteeism, decrease tardiness, decrease out-of-school suspensions, utilize in-school suspension more, and assist teachers with strategies in classroom management. And my favorite role, I was also athletic director.
I loved every day at Cypress Middle. It was a little different because I grew up in South Memphis and I was at a North Memphis school. But as police officers, we know how to adapt to different situations; we’re trained to adapt. We’re also trained to observe and not have tunnel vision.
The first thing I wanted to do is find the parents and get parent participation back. I always think about myself and how would I want to be treated. If you know how you want to be treated, that’s how you should want the next person to be treated. Once we get the parents involved in the school, then we can get the community back involved. We went from probably eight parents coming to the parent-teacher organization meetings to about 50. (The school closed in 2014.)
We would walk the neighborhood twice a month with teachers on Saturdays and have cookouts or other events to let parents know we were a part of the community. We would talk about the academic programs, tutoring, and character education we had going on at the school.
We had sponsors who would donate prizes for students with good attendance records and getting to school on time. Those same sponsors would send volunteers who would help us make phone calls to parents to let them know what was going on. We had a computer lab for parents working on their GED, and we worked with a city agency to help with job placement.
You’ve mentioned “triggers” several times. Can you elaborate on what those are and what works to minimize those?
When I say triggers, for me it’s about what ticks them off, what makes them angry. I’m going to use this word “checking” in Memphis that means somebody is talking about what you look like or things of that sort. And then you have a lot of family issues in the African-American community. When you look at broken homes, we don’t have a lot of fathers in the home. So, that’s a major trigger.
I’ve seen those triggers on every level of law enforcement. You have some who have been violated by their parents or a family member at young age and they never told anybody. So, when you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out. A lot of it comes out incorrectly and people have issues that the outcome is prison time.
On the education side, I would just take the time to sit down with students who had been suspended a lot or “frequent flyers” as we call them and talk with parents or guardians or someone they are close to in the household. I also made household visits. I love speaking with parents face-to-face when they’re home from work to hear what’s going on and figure out how to help the student. That’s anything from helping out with the student’s character to how to get the student to school on time.
On the law enforcement side, the only thing you could do is talk about the what if. If you could relive that incident, how would you handle it? We come back with what you should have done on how to interact, communicate, and cope.
How do schools contribute to that problem?
I believe now the school district is doing a great job and trying to decrease and stop the school-to-prison pipeline. The district has systems in place now where you have advocates in the schools, you have your behavior specialists, you have in-school suspension, you have your professional school counselors. And you have outside organizations that are working in the schools now. We have the adults in the building who can identify you and pull you to the side on a mentor-mentee basis to talk about problems before a suspension or expulsion is issued.
I know from being a part of this system and trying to make it better for our African-American males, the district is doing a tremendous job to reduce to the school-to-prison pipeline.
The more resources we have for the employees the better it works out for the school district and the relationships we build with the students — because, always remember, relationship-building is the most important piece of the school day. If someone out of all those resources can build that solid relationship with the student who has been defiant and fighting, that one person in the building can relate and talk to the student about what’s going on. Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves. You see the fruits of your labor when that child who was acting up on Monday comes in on Wednesday and gets to school on time, in uniform, and goes and sits in that teacher’s class who’s probably been referring him 10 to 12 times.
You have to keep asking about their academics too. Because now they’ll know their mentor is going to ask them about what they learned, they’ll be more attentive.