May 4, 2014 in Opinion

Special to The Spokesman-Review: School discipline needs to keep students learning

Roberta J. Wilburn
 

Early this year, the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department acknowledged a nationwide problem of exclusionary and discriminatory school discipline practices. Citing data showing that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from school, the Department of Education urged schools and policymakers to focus on prevention while ensuring fairness with consistent expectations and consequences.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “quality education is an important civil and human right that has yet to be fully realized in the American public education system.” The racial disproportionality currently associated with suspension and expulsions supports the validity of this statement. The NAACP feels that racial disparity in school discipline occurs because “many schools rely too heavily on suspensions from school to respond to minor incidents.” Such actions have long-term consequences contributing to an achievement gap, increased school dropout, and increased likelihood of gang involvement and incarceration.

In 2012, TeamChild and Washington Appleseed, two statewide nonprofits, issued a study finding that Washington school districts with high suspension and expulsion rates tended to have the lowest graduation rates. It also concluded that students of color in Washington schools are disciplined disproportionately, as they are in districts throughout the country.

Spokane NAACP President James Wilburn said that many African-American parents are disenfranchised because they feel that their children are being discriminated against at school, but they lack the cultural capital to know how to navigate the system. Without these skills, they can’t effectively advocate for their children, who frequently receive multiple suspensions. This causes the students to slip further behind in their academics, making it nearly impossible to catch up. This is a major factor leading to the school-to-prison pipeline, a common term for the trend of school discipline leading to law enforcement referrals and school dropout, among other life-altering consequences.

Rather than excluding students from school, the key to changing unwanted behaviors is teaching students alternatives to existing behavior. Spokane and neighboring districts need to utilize strategies such as in-school suspension and restorative justice options that have been proved effective with discipline issues in schools around the country. For example, after implementing restorative justice options, Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School has seen its suspension rate decrease by 85 percent. Noting that many students’ misbehavior is a symptom of a trauma-filled childhood, Principal Jim Sporleder said, “Punishing misbehavior just doesn’t work. You’re simply adding trauma to an already traumatized kid.”

In Spokane, where African-American students are 2.45 times more likely than white students and special education students are 2.53 times more likely than regular education students to be excluded from school, efforts to eliminate this disproportionality have begun. The United Way’s School-Community Partnership Committee has brought together many leaders to work on improving Spokane’s graduation rates and discipline policy. Similarly, leaders within Spokane Public Schools have started the Community Action Team to discuss ways to best address the issue.

Addressing inappropriate school behavior is a multifaceted problem that needs to include a collaborative approach involving school administrators, teachers, parents, students and the community. Administrators, teachers and other school personnel need to become aware of new information related to adverse childhood experiences and trauma, social emotional learning, positive behavioral intervention supports, and equity pedagogy.

Exclusionary discipline left more than 10 percent of Spokane’s students locked out of learning at some point during the 2012-2013 school year – totaling 21,191 days of school missed. Transforming how we respond to challenging behavior is essential in ensuring that these struggling students do not become disconnected from school and positive outcomes in their lives.

Last summer, the Washington Legislature passed a law requiring school districts to be more proactive in keeping disciplined students engaged with their education. The Legislature also required that all suspensions and expulsions have a determined end date, with none lasting longer than one year. In response to the law, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has proposed changes to the Washington Administrative Code. OSPI has broad rulemaking authority, and it has the chance to have a real effect on school exclusion and provide a safe learning environment for our students. The rule changes OSPI has proposed, however, do not take full advantage of this authority. OSPI will be taking public comments at jess.lewis@k12.wa.us or OSPI, Attn: Jess Lewis, PO Box 47200, Olympia, WA 98504-7200. We urge you to make your suggestions heard before OSPI’s public hearing in Olympia on Monday.

Roberta J. Wilburn is associate dean for graduate studies in Education & Diversity Initiatives, Whitworth University. Daniel S. Ophardt is staff attorney and Northwestern University School of Law public interest fellow, TeamChild.


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