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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report gives mixed picture of school discipline at Spokane Public Schools

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools took an ambitious change in its approach to special education, and it is paying off.

While the district acknowledges there is more work ahead, officials pointed to a quarterly report showing a steep drop in the use of isolation and restraints, especially for students with behavior problems.

“It’s a special cause for celebration,” said Associate Superintendent Adam Swinyard, who teamed up with secondary schools director Shawn Jordan to present a mostly positive report on school discipline at a school board meeting last week.

The biggest takeaway was confirmation that moving students in the fall from the alternative school Eagle Peak to a variety of programs has brought results the district had hoped for.

The most encouraging number is a 69% drop in the use of isolation and restraints. A year ago at this time, the district used those measures 3,332 times; this year that number is 1,035.

On other fronts, the report is mixed.

Districtwide, the use of exclusions – suspensions and expulsions – is down 10% from a year ago, but arrests are up 26% and nonwhite students continue to experience a disproportionate number of disciplinary incidents.

“We know we still have a long way to go,” Swinyard said.

However, staff and the board seemed encouraged by the progress in special education, which was spurred in part by a report the district commissioned in 2017.

That report, by the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, identified concerns ranging from leadership turnover to a lack of support for students.

In particular, Eagle Peak had been criticized by parents and others for harsh discipline practices, including having some students sitting outside on a bench, even in cold weather.

A year ago, the district took a transformative step by overhauling a system that serves hundreds of Spokane students with varying needs.

Last spring, Swinyard and special education director Becky Ramsey spearheaded an admittedly ambitious program to move students from Eagle Peak toward programs more tailored to individual needs.

The biggest leap was approval last spring of a one-year, renewable cooperative agreement worth up to $1.4 million annually with Excelsior Wellness Center, a nonprofit that now serves several dozen students from fourth through 12th grades.

“The results are encouraging,” Swinyard said.

Likewise, the district is optimistic that the broadening use of restorative practices will bring a corresponding drop in exclusions.

The report showed a 7% increase in restorative practices, which aim for a collaborative approach in solving disciplinary issues and mediating differences between teachers and students and their families.

The practice also is used to build relationships and reduce conflict among students.

At the same time, districtwide exclusions were down 11% from a year ago. The numbers were more impressive for special education students (down 37%) and at the K-3 level (down 23%).

“We’re applying the use of restorative practices whenever possible,” Jordan said.

Another positive, according to Swinyard, is that historically, a drop in exclusions is often accompanied by a corresponding rise in other in-school discipline. However, this year that number dropped 1%.

The decline in exclusions wasn’t uniform. They actually rose 4% in middle schools and dropped 10% at the high school level.

Changes varied widely by school. For undisclosed reasons, exclusions at Glover Middle School soared from four at this time a year ago to 127. They also rose sharply at Ferris High School (from 80 to 135) and Garry Middle School (from 138 to 194).

Many schools showed improvement. At Rogers High School, exclusions fell from 318 to 169. Jefferson Elementary exclusions fell by two-thirds, from 99 to 34.

Disproportionate discipline continues to be a problem in Spokane and other districts. For example, African-American students were arrested at 2.2 times the rate for all students, while white students faced arrest at 30% the average rate.