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Wash. State To Have Better Understanding Of Why Schools Suspend, Expel Kids

Eric E Castro

As evidence mounts that harsh discipline policies in U.S. schools make students more likely to drop out or even to end up in jail, Washington state has not been able to explain why most students are getting in trouble.

More than half of the suspensions and expulsions handed down in Washington schools were not for drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence, but for "other behavior." The category has been a catch-all for a range of misbehaviors — from talking back in class to cheating on a paper, to sexual harassment.

The vague data and "lack of common definitions" made it difficult to compare schools or districts' discipline policies, according to a state task force report released Tuesday — and potentially even obscured disparities in how schools disciplined students in different racial groups.

But that's set to change. State education officials will begin collecting data on suspensions and expulsions for 10 new categories of student infractions often counted previously as "other behavior," according to the new report.

'The Connectivity Of Excessive Discipline And Dropout Rates'

The changes come as an array of advocates, academics and policymakers — from the state level up to the federal departments of Education and Justice — are raising concerns that harsh discipline policies are disproportionately harming students of color.

Community members, the state task force report says, "need to be continuously aware of the connectivity of excessive discipline ... dropout rates, and less than desirable graduation rates and the increasing number of students winding up in the juvenile justice system."

Washington schools are already collecting data in two of the 10 new categories: suspensions or expulsions for "failure to cooperate" and for "disruptive conduct."

Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, districts will need to begin collecting data on discipline for vandalism, sexually inappropriate conduct, sexual harassment, theft, academic dishonesty, bullying, discrimination and "discipline for [a] culmination of multiple infractions that occurred during a school year."

'Willful Defiance' And Other Reasons For Discipline

"The 'other' category so dwarfs everything else that — it doesn't make the data irrelevant, but it makes any deeper dive into the data quite difficult," said Nathan Olson, a spokesperson for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Though only 15 percent of students in a national civil rights dataset are black, federal education officials say black students constitute "35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled." Studieshave also suggested minority students account for an outsize share of suspensions for broadly-defined offenses such as "willful defiance."

Olson said creating more specific categories like this can help educators assess whether these trends hold true in Washington schools.

"If the data show us there is an incredible amount of disproportionality, because we’re collecting more data, that will help us change policy. I think that, in the long run, it will help change education for the better," Olson said.

Recommendations For Improvement

The report from the Student Discipline Task Force, empowered in its work by a 2013 state law, also includes a "wish list," as Olson put it, for how schools should handle suspensions and expulsions. For instance, the task force recommends that schools adopt restorative justice practices, which favors mediation and reconciliation over punishment for students facing discipline.

Olson noted many Washington school districts have already instituted such practices.

"Keeping students in school is fundamental to their academic success. Students many times during the immediate behavior infraction do not think about how their action impacts others," the task force report says. "Excluding them through the use of harsh, punitive policies disengages students — leading many to drop out and many become involved with the juvenile justice system."

Olson said task force members were concerned their recommendations could create new burdens for smaller school districts. He said they would advocate for new state funding to help districts meet these recommendations. 

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.