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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Poorer Spokane students more likely to be suspended than their wealthier peers

A person walks in front of the Spokane Public Schools administration building on Friday, February 10, 2017. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Students who come from low-income families are disciplined more than their wealthier peers, according to new discipline data provided by Spokane Public Schools.

“I don’t think it’s a subcategory or a vague correlation,” said psychotherapist Kent Hoffman. “I think it’s a direct correlation.”

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches accounted for 80 percent of all district suspensions so far this school year, but that group makes up only 48 percent of the district population.

In other words, such students are disproportionally sent home.

Hoffman, who works with homeless parents and students in Spokane and internationally, said that disproportionality touches on a larger issue, one that can’t be blamed solely on families or the school district: Poverty makes it harder for families to feel stable, which can lead to bad parenting, he said. Bad parenting can in turn result in children acting up in school.

“I’ve never met a parent who woke up in the morning and decided to be a bad parent,” he said. “Poverty by it’s nature statistically limits parents’ availability to children because they are so busy trying to make ends meet.”

For instance, a student may come to class hungry, then get cranky. Or a student whose family doesn’t have a place to sleep at night, or is bouncing from couch to couch, might misbehave in school.

The new data was presented to the Spokane Public Schools board of directors on Wednesday. Board President Deana Brower said it revealed one of the root causes of disproportionate discipline throughout the district.

“It’s an illustration of the poverty in our community and how it plays out in our schools,” she said in an interview. “We know that poverty brings challenges for any number of reasons for our students.”

Over the last two years the district has made a concerted effort to reduce out-of-school suspensions. A turn toward restorative discipline, which puts an emphasis on building relationships and repairing any damage done by misbehavior, has reduced discipline districtwide, the data showed.

And while disproportionate discipline of minority students has fallen, two areas of disproportionate discipline have remained – for special-education students and students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

That makes Brower wonder if the district hasn’t been missing the root cause of some student misbehavior.

Fred Schrumpf, the district’s restorative practices director, said the new discipline practices are working, although more needs to be done.

As proof he highlighted Logan Elementary and Sheridan Elementary, two schools with high rates of free and reduced-price lunch. Bucking the districtwide trend, both schools have low levels of suspensions among low-income students.

“It’s a little complex, but when I hear about schools talking about regulation and repair, that to me is the right conversation to have,” Schrumpf said.

Vanessa Hernandez, youth policy director for the ACLU of Washington, said the overall decrease of discipline is “encouraging” and shows “the value of the district taking a systematic approach to addressing the overuse of discipline in its schools.”

Still, she’s concerned about the disproportionate discipline of special-education students and low-income students. Without more detailed data it’s not clear if those numbers indicate a problem in a few schools or a districtwide issue.

“I think it’s their obligation, and their responsibility, to get to the bottom of what’s going on,” she said.

Rowena Pineda, a program manager for the Spokane Regional Health District, said the high rate of discipline for students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch doesn’t surprise her.

She echoes Hoffman, saying misbehavior in school is often linked to childhood trauma, which can be linked to poverty.

“How do we make sure the teachers and administrators understand the circumstances that the students are coming from?” Pineda said. “So, if they are misbehaving in class, are the teachers really trying to find out what’s the need underneath that?”

Hoffman noted, “It’s not an excuse. Just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I have the right to be a less-adequate parent.’

Nor is it a hopeless cycle. Hoffman said when parents are given clear, simple directions to improving their parenting, they can and they do. Hoffman has seen that work, even with homeless families.

“What I’ve come to know over the years is that when parents find greater financial stability, healthy parenting options increase,” Hoffman said in an email. “This is clearly part of what we’re seeing in this recent study from Spokane Public Schools.”