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Spike in Spokane schools discipline linked to turbulent year, school officials say

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 1, 2017, 7:07 p.m.

Freeman High School student Holly Smith, 17, on right is escorted of school property by her older sister Mariah after a a school shooting at Freeman High School left one student dead and three injured, Wed. Sept 13, 2017. Spokane schools have seen a spike in disciplinary actions this school year, which some officials attribute to the Freeman shooting. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Freeman High School student Holly Smith, 17, on right is escorted of school property by her older sister Mariah after a a school shooting at Freeman High School left one student dead and three injured, Wed. Sept 13, 2017. Spokane schools have seen a spike in disciplinary actions this school year, which some officials attribute to the Freeman shooting. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

So far this year, suspensions and expulsions in Spokane schools have increased by 48 percent, according to data collected by the school district.

As of Thursday, there were 775 incidents of students being excluded from Spokane Public Schools. That’s a marked increase from the same point last year, when there were 524 incidents.

Fred Schrumpf, the district’s director of restorative practices, believes the increase is partially due to the Freeman High School shooting in September and the Las Vegas shooting on October 1.

“I think you have to look at the national picture, the regional picture and the local picture,” he said.

However, Mark Sterk, the district’s director of transportation and security, hesitated to link the increase in threats, suspensions and expulsions to Freeman or Las Vegas.

“We do feel like there has been an increase in incidents where kids are making threats but that has been consistent across the state for some reason,” Sterk said.

Within the first 40 days of the school year, the district has done more student threat assessments than during the entirety of last year, Schrumpf said. A threat assessment is conducted when a student makes a threat and is sent home. School staff evaluate and interview the student before allowing them to return to school.

The data was presented to education activists, administrators, parents, some board members and students who attended a Tuesday meeting focusing on restorative practices.

“This got my attention,” Schrumpf said Tuesday of the increase. “Because it’s going in the wrong direction … with all the work we’re doing.”

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.

A 2016 state law limited long-term suspension and expulsion and demands districts collect and publish more data on discipline. Last school year the district published quarterly updates. Starting this year, there will be monthly updates, including student arrest data.

“This is more comprehensive than the one we had last year,” Schrumpf said of the data.

Travis Schulhauser, the district’s director of assessment and instructional technology, said that while the Freeman shooting and Las Vegas shooting likely affected the increase of incidents, there may be another factor. The way the district collects discipline data has changed.

“I can guarantee you we’re keeping track of more incidents than we ever have,” he said.

School board President Deana Brower said that, in addition to an increased awareness and sensitivity to school threats, she believes a change in the district’s arrest policy may also account for the increase.

“We have to consider that we have fewer arrests, so the fact that we’re not turning our students over to juvenile justice to handle suggests we’re handling it internally,” she said.

For Brower this is a positive sign, one that indicates restorative practices are starting to take root in the state’s second largest school district. Additionally, Brower said she was happy to see that serious in-school incidents are still being taken seriously.

“We’re not turning a blind eye to students’ behavior,” she said.

Sterk said that campus resource officers are using short-term expulsions as a period of time in which to investigate alleged crimes, instead of arresting a student. In the past, he said, an arrest may have been automatic. However, arrestable offenses haven’t been turned into suspensions or expulsions, he said.

“We create a space in time where we have time to make the best decision for that particular student in that particular situation,” Sterk said.

So far this year there have been 29 student arrests. Students of color accounted for 18 of those. Last year 99 students were arrested, 47 of whom were students of color.

Brower also praised Superintendent Shelley Redinger for inviting community members to talk to the district and share their experiences, concerns and thoughts about discipline.

“We have a great cross section of staff,” Brower said. “Gosh, there were students at the table this time. That was fabulous. And parents who didn’t have the most positive experiences.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Redinger said the process will take time and that an increase in suspensions and expulsions doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not working.

“I think we need to learn from that but not throw out everything and say it’s not working,” she said.

Nikki Lockwood, an education activist and member of the Every Child Counts Alliance, was also glad to see good turnout at Tuesday’s meeting, but she was distressed to see the increase in expulsions and suspensions.

“We’re not there yet,” she said.

One concern raised by teachers and other school staff after the districtwide adoption of restorative discipline practices was that not suspending and expelling students could lead to dangerous or disruptive school environments. Those concerns were aired in June during a sometimes-impassioned school board meeting, where teachers shared their experiences of being verbally or physically attacked in class.

On Tuesday, school administrators said they were implementing more trainings and trying to provide more resources for teachers.

According to the data released by the district, 143 of the suspensions and expulsions were categorized as verbal or physical aggression. Meanwhile, 109 of the exclusions resulted from defiance of a reasonable directive; 107 from violence without major injury; 89 from fighting without major injury and 64 from threats.

Threats to staff accounted for 25 of the total suspensions and expulsions.

The disproportionate discipline of minorities, special education students and low income students remains an area of concern. So far, students qualifying for free and reduced lunch accounted for 84 percent of all suspensions and expulsions, despite only making up 53 percent of the district population.

Multiracial students accounted for 21 percent of expulsions and suspensions while only making up 13 percent of the student population, and African-American students accounted for 5 percent of expulsions and suspensions while only accounting for 3 percent of the student population.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Monday, Oct. 30, 2017 to correct an attribution. Fred Schrumpf, the Spokane Public School’s director of restorative practices said that within the first 40 days of the school year, the district has done more student threat assessments than during the entirety of last year.

This story was changed on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017 to correct the spelling of Fred Schrumpf’s name.