Overall, Spokane Public Schools suspension rates have dropped 31 percent over the past two years, according to data collected by the district.
However, certain groups of students continue to be suspended at a disproportionate rate.
The data, which tracked suspensions and expulsions across the district, was presented to the district board of directors at Wednesday’s board meeting.
Students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch accounted for 88 percent of all district suspensions, while only making up 56 percent of the student population. Students qualifying for special education accounted for 36 percent of all district suspensions while only making up 14 percent of the district’s student population.
District staff also looked at the types of incidents and behaviors that led to suspensions. This was in response to concerns raised by board members, teachers and parents that the district push to lower the suspension rate came at the expense of student and staff safety.
“We do have more students in our school system that are displaying more serious types of behaviors than we have had in the past,” said Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of secondary education programs, at Wednesday’s board meeting.
According to the district analysis, those “more serious types of behaviors” led to suspension or expulsion.
In 2016-17, there were 157 threats made against school staff, 121 of which resulted in suspension or expulsion. That’s compared to 129 threats made against staff in 2015-16, 111 of which ended with suspension or expulsion.
The same held true for violent altercations that caused injury. In 2016-17, there were 55 violent incidents that resulted in injury of some kind. Thirty-four of those cases ended in suspension or expulsion.
“We continue to suspend students when the behavior is this type of serious nature,” Jordan said.
At a board meeting in June, board Vice President Susan Chapin questioned whether the emphasis on decreasing suspensions was actually changing behaviors.
On Wednesday, she applauded staff for examining the issue. Still, she said, she continues to have concerns. She emphasized that classrooms need to be “not just a safe environment” but also a “sane environment so learning can go on.”
“The reason school is a good place for kids to be is because that’s where they can learn,” she said at the meeting.
Every grade saw a reduction in suspensions, with the exception of sixth grade. In 2016-17 there were 331 sixth-grade suspensions compared to 276 in 2015-16.
Elementary-aged students continued to make up the bulk of district suspensions. Partly that’s because roughly half of all district students are in an elementary grade, said Brain Melody, a director of elementary education.
However, part of it also might have to do with students adjusting to the school environment.
As evidence of that, Jennifer Keck, a director of elementary education, pointed to the fact that as students moved through the system, they were suspended less. Eighty-six kindergartners were suspended a total of 225 times this year. Compare that to 58 high school students being suspended 63 times.
This indicated that kids are “learning to do school,” Keck said.
Starting next year, Melody said the district will hire a “cadre” of substitute teachers to help ease the transition for kindergarten students. Those substitutes will be in classrooms for the first 19 days of school.
Melody said they are also requesting additional funding to hire more behavioral support specialists. Currently, the district has seven who roam throughout the district.
“We’re committed to this work,” Jordan said.
Over the past two years, the school district has embraced restorative discipline – a system that emphasizes reducing out-of-school discipline and encourages communication and training to deflate situations. Many of the changes occurring in Spokane are in response to a new state law that limits long-term suspension and expulsion and demands districts collect and publish more data on discipline.
“We’ve started to gain some momentum, and we’re poised to move the dial in an encouraging way,” said board President Deana Brower.