For the past two years, Spokane Public Schools has been overhauling how it handles student discipline.
The goal is to suspend and expel fewer students, and focus on communication with students and better training for staff.
All Washington schools are moving in the same direction under a new state law that limits long-term suspension and expulsion to certain serious behavior, including possession of weapons, gang activity, sexual offenses and the use of drugs or alcohol.
School districts also may not suspend educational services as a form of discipline under the new law. A student who is suspended or expelled must continue to receive an education in an alternative setting.
The Spokane school district had the highest student discipline rate in the state in 2015, with roughly 8 percent of all students being suspended or expelled. In addition, black students were suspended or expelled almost twice as often as other students, while students with 504 plans – those who have disabilities, which can include learning or attention issues – were suspended or expelled three times as often.
The district also has been criticized for referring too many cases to the juvenile justice system.
To reduce the high number of kids being thrown out of school and the disproportionate discipline of minorities and special-education students, the district has worked to overhaul the system with restorative discipline, an approach that puts a premium on relationships.
The school board voted unanimously last week to update its student discipline policy and guidelines for school conduct to conform with the new state law as well as updated information from the superintendent of public instruction. The changes also reflect national models such as Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies, which focuses on communicating expectations with students and setting behavior standards.
Board members seem pleased with the reforms. “We can write the best policies in the world, but it’s still going to have to be implemented with fidelity in the schools,” member Paul Schneider said. “Rest assured that this is a good beginning step.”
But some parents say they remain skeptical based on the district’s past conduct.
“I wish I could say my children have had a wonderful experience in District 81,” said Virla Spencer, who petitioned for Superintendent Shelley Redinger’s resignation late last year after her son was detained for trespassing at Shaw Middle School. Spencer maintains her son was targeted because he is African-American, and she has been active in advocating for students’ rights.
Spencer spoke Wednesday at the school board meeting before the vote on the discipline changes. She and two other community members expressed their dismay with the district’s history of discipline, especially in its treatment of minority and special-needs children.
“I think about all the issues my children have dealt with over the last 15 years, and I am tired,” the mother of seven said. “It’s like a broken record over and over.”
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and other groups met with school officials earlier this year on the efforts to reform student discipline in Spokane schools.
“This is work that has been going on for quite some time,” said Adam Swinyard, the district’s director of secondary school support.
Rosey Thurman, an attorney at Team Child, a legal advocacy group for youths, sat in on the meetings with the district and the superintendent, and was there when Redinger signed a resolution admitting the district had relied too much on harsh disciplinary actions, including referring too many children for criminal prosecution for school-based behavior.
Thurman said she is pleased to see the district take a step forward but won’t get her hopes up until she sees positive results. “Let’s see where the rubber meets the road,” she said.
Kevin Morrison, director of communications for the district, said reporting of disciplinary action is different across the state, and that the higher-than-normal percentage of suspensions and expulsions could be chalked up to the district’s diligence in being honest. The district’s high number of special-needs children and the behavioral complications that can arise from that population also may have been a contributing factor, he said.
“Kids should be in school,” Morrison said. “I think everyone is in agreement on that. But I think we have to call out, once again, how the data is being teased down. It’s undisputed amongst all parties that the data is not as accurate, or a good reflection of the realities of what is happening.”