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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reversing three-year trend, discipline rises in Spokane Public Schools

FILE – MaryO Gustafson, dean of students at North Central High School checks in on Imata Kabua as he catches up on homework on Monday, May 16, 2016, at North Central high school in Spokane. The room, which Kabua is using to study in is also used to reduce out of school suspensions by focusing on discipline issues. Spokane Public Schools had the highest discipline rate in the state in 2015 causing other schools to consider similar options. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

African-Americans, special education students and other groups in Spokane Public Schools are facing much higher rates of discipline than their peers, the district board was told last week.

“Exclusionary consequences” is the district’s terminology for suspensions and expulsions. Reversing a three-year decline, they rose 8.5 percent during the 2017-18 school year.

And despite the district’s efforts to educate staff on implicit bias, they fell disproportionately heavily on the same groups as before.

African-Americans comprise 3.2 percent of the Spokane Public Schools student body, yet represent 5.6 percent of the disciplinary action. Students identifying as multiracial make up 13.8 percent of students, but faced 20.4 percent of the roughly 4,079 suspensions and expulsions.

Students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch accounted for 86.1 percent of all district discipline, yet make up only 57.4 of the student body. Special education students comprise 17.8 percent of the student body but received 32.8 percent of the suspensions and expulsions.

“Obviously there are areas where we have work to do,” Adam Swinyard, the district’s chief academic officer, said Wednesday night during a presentation with Gwen Harris, the director of option schools and program support.

That work is ongoing.

During the past three years, the district has employed restorative discipline, a system that stresses communication and staff training to deflate tense situations and reduce expulsions and suspensions.

Swinyard and Harris also shared details of ongoing efforts, including a Multiple Tiered System of Support, or MTSS. Work groups will examine which interventions are working for each age group, and what strategies may be falling short.

According to Swinyard, the MTSS helps the district “make sure that we have a proactive system in place to respond to student needs.”

However, like many districts, Spokane Public Schools has been criticized for implicit bias by staff, especially as it relates to disciplinary action.

During a budget presentation last month, several people urged the district to step up its efforts.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re going anywhere on this,” said Larry Valadez, president of Spokane’s Hispanic Business/Professional Association.

Shawn Jordan, the district’s supervising director of secondary programs and special services, said that training is ongoing.

“We all have some implicit bias,” Jordan said. “The training is about making us all more aware. … I think cultural responsibility is ‘How do I respond to someone who comes from a different background than my own?’ ” Jordan said.

Relating a recent conversation with a female student of color, Jordan said the girl “didn’t feel that her teachers cared about her. … changing that is what we are working toward.”

The district’s vehicle is the Restorative Practices Implementation Plan, a seven-path strategy that Swinyard says is part of an “articulated plan to help staff learn and grow.”

The program is a response to a state law that limits long-term suspensions and expulsions, and requires more documentation from each district.

The documents shared Wednesday showed a mixed bag.

Overall, “exclusionary consequences” were up 8.4 percent from the year before.

The spike came early – possibly a reaction to the September shootings at Freeman High School.

“That may have created an increase in the numbers of behavior we recorded related to social media threats, causing some emergency expulsions,” Swinyard said.

The numbers spiked again in February, following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “Until then, we were on a downward trend,” Swinyard said.

The report also revealed 626 incidents involving eighth-graders – by far the most of any grade.

“That’s a trend we are studying quite closely,” Swinyard said.

Last year, 186 different seventh-graders accounted for 432 incidents. By junior year, 112 students faced 174 suspensions and expulsions.

Board president Sue Chapin asked about efforts to stop the problem at its source, with more involvement by community partners in the home.

“We’re doing great work in certain pockets, but not as well as we’d like,” Swinyard said.