Last Friday, a boy in Debra Horton’s fifth-grade Regal Elementary class calmly stood up and threatened to kill everyone.
“I’ve never felt as threatened as I did at that moment,” she said.
Horton’s story was among several that teachers and parents shared during a sometimes contentious Spokane Public Schools board meeting this week about changing discipline policies.
“We have a second-grade teacher who’s had to evacuate her classroom between 20 to 30 times this year,” said Kevin Cope, a teacher at Grant Elementary and a Spokane Education Association board member.
A delegation of teachers, most of whom serve on the SEA’s executive board, echoed Cope. Classrooms aren’t as safe, they said, after a district-wide effort to reduce suspension and expulsion rates.
The teachers want school officials to pay for more training around restorative discipline practices, and would like to be more involved in the process, especially at the elementary level.
“We don’t want them suspended,” Cope said. “We don’t want them thrown out. We want to teach them.”
The boy in Horton’s class was sent home, but by Monday he’d returned to class.
At first, administrators refused to search the boy before allowing him back in school. However, Horton threatened to not come to work until they searched him.
A group of parents representing the Every Student Counts Alliance told the teachers at the meeting that they have parent support.
“It sounds like we’re on the same page,” said Rosey Thurman.
The parents’ concerns focused on how special education students are treated in the district and around disproportionate discipline rates for minorities and special education students.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a lawsuit against the state education agency on behalf of special education students.
Stefanie Farren’s two children were bullied so badly at Cooper Elementary that she had to take them out of school, she said.
She recounted finding bruises on their bodies after school. At one point, she said, her son was kicked 12 times. Much of the abuse happened away from school, on the walk home. When she talked to school administrators about the issue, they said they couldn’t do anything and that it was part of the reality of attending a poor and diverse school.
“This is a problem that needs to be fixed,” she said to the board. “It’s not fair.”
At points, the public testimony became heated.
Jessie Anderson, whose son attends Eagle Peak, said her son has been mistreated and inappropriately restrained by staff numerous times. She blames that largely on district leadership.
“You aren’t doing your job,” she told the board.
Parents informally met with school administrators after the public comment session and continued to express their grievances.
“I think it shows the build-up of parent voice not being heard,” Nikki Lockwood said.
The Every Student Counts Alliance is comprised of a number of local organizations and is coordinated by the ACLU of Washington. The alliance sent a letter to the board ahead of Wednesday’s meeting asking for increased funding for restorative practices, support for students with special needs, implicit bias training, campus resource officer training and improved data collection.
Over the last 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.
And suspension, expulsion and arrest rates have fallen with the implementation.
According to district data released in the spring the total number of suspensions fell 27 percent between 2015-16 and 2016-17. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17 the total number of suspensions fell 35 percent.
As of June 13, there were 128 student arrests, according to district data. Last year, there were 806 arrests. Eighth- and ninth-grade students were arrested 121 times, with only a handful of arrests coming from other grades.
Elementary age students were still suspended more often than older students. As of the 133rd day of the 2016-17 school year, there were 1,297 elementary suspensions compared to 1,144 middle school and high school suspensions.
Minority students were disproportionally suspended. Twenty percent of all suspended students were multi-racial, despite making up only 13 percent of the total student population. Students with behavioral intervention plans accounted for 35 percent of all district suspensions, despite making up only 8 percent of the population.
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.
Michaela Jones, a third-grade teacher at Lidgerwood Elementary and a member of the SEA board, said elementary teachers haven’t gotten the same training and support that middle school and high school teachers received.
“Our elementary schools are certainly crying out for some of the attention,” she said.
Adding later, “We’re very cursorily trained.”
District Superintendent Shelley Redinger said in an interview earlier this week that the district has invested in elementary training and support. As evidence, she pointed to the roughly $1 million spent on hiring principal assistants for every elementary school. And, she said, all teachers have received Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports training.
“We’re finding that suspending students over and over again isn’t effective,” Redinger said.
Suspending students less is a good thing, Jones said, but it can’t come at the expense of safety.
Sue Chapin, a board member, raised similar concerns Wednesday.
“The behaviors that used to result in suspensions, I don’t know if they’re stopping or if the behaviors are continuing in the school but the children are no longer being suspended,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting.
She asked district administrators to answer that question.
“This is a bigger problem than Spokane Public Schools or a single classroom problem,” Chapin said. “This is a community problem.”