By Bob Murphy and Fred Schrumpf
In the past two weeks, three articles in The Spokesman-Review reported the Spokane Police Department challenged Spokane Public Schools over a perceived lack of reporting school assaults and threats and asked the FBI to investigate. Police departments can’t ignore such serious allegations, but why the need to call in the FBI before asking the district leadership team to meet?
Some historical context is important. In 2015, numerous community organizations – including the NAACP, Northwest Autism Center, Every Student Counts Alliance, ARC of Spokane and Team Child – approached Spokane Public Schools and asked the district to engage in discussions regarding the effect the discipline policy was having on students and schools. During the 2014-15 school year alone, more than 800 arrests and referrals were made to juvenile court. Further analysis showed the suspension rate in Spokane Schools was 8.5% of the student population, second highest of all Washington districts and more than twice the average in the state of 3.9%. Additionally, students of color and students with disabilities were suspended at a much higher rate, and disciplinary actions impacted the graduation rate. In essence, a large segment of the Spokane community challenged the district to address the fact schools were criminalizing student misbehavior and thus feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.
Spokane Public Schools accepted the challenge and initiated a comprehensive review and districtwide implementation plan. The superintendent at the time established a task force representing all stakeholders. Community safety representatives, including the police department and Spokane County Juvenile Court, participated in the process. The task force’s efforts culminated in a resolution designating a restorative practice focus as the core of the discipline policy. The school board adopted policy changes to reflect the restorative focus and address the inequities. The ACLU praised the district’s efforts specifically noting language to guide school staff in understanding “how and when” to contact the police.
The implementation plan included staff training throughout the district. Teachers were trained to implement restorative practice at the classroom level and administrators learned best practices to implement building level interventions. Additional training including, the impact of trauma, the effect of adverse childhood experiences and knowledge of culturally responsive teaching.
Restorative practices in a school setting are designed to build community by strengthening relationships, supporting people harmed and promoting student responsibility. A restorative approach to student behavior never stands alone but is balanced with the need for appropriate disciplinary action essential to safe schools. Not everyone agrees with a restorative focus. Isolated negative incidents, however, should not override the greater benefit the district has achieved. Schools are experiencing safer, more supportive environments because students are accepting responsibility for their actions, harm is repaired and conflicts resolved. Involvement with juvenile court and entry into the criminal justice system rarely leads to such opportunities for growth and responsibility.
Comparing data from 2014-15 and 2018-19 highlights the positive impact. Arrests fell from 806 to 88. Exclusionary discipline – meaning suspensions and expulsions – followed suit, dropping from 4,051 to 3,052. During that same time, graduation rates increased from 84.5% to 89.3% In addition, suspension and arrest rates show little disproportionality for students of color or student with disabilities. Students not only are staying in school but doing so with a greater sense of responsibility to the community and each other.
The district should be commended for the responsive way it engaged with the community. Teachers, administrators and classified staff who worked so hard to implement the new discipline policy should have the opportunity to be heard about the real impact restorative practices have had in schools. Students should also have a voice in a community discussion.
We are blessed with an excellent leadership team and thoughtful school board representatives. How long do you think these caring individuals will continue to serve if we keep thwarting the good they strive to do for our children, families and the community as a whole?
As a community, we all must find a way to work together, talk directly, and develop policies to support the safety and well-being of all students and families. If police leadership is not willing to sit down with the district to create solutions, then it may be time for the mayor and other elected officials to extend the invitation. In fact, let’s all make a commitment to building a restorative community and let’s all be willing to make our own personal contribution to the effort.
Bob Murphy is a former educator and school administrator in Alaska and current restorative practice mediator/facilitator. Fred Schrumpf is former principal of Havermale High School and district coordinator for community partnerships and restorative practices for Spokane Public Schools. Brian Melody and Cleve Penberthy also contributed to this column. Melody is former SPS elementary school director and principal of Adams, Sheridan and Woodridge elementaries. Penberthy is former principal of West Valley High School and Contract-Based Education, and former superintendent of schools in Telluride, Colorado. All four live in Spokane.
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