Students can’t learn if they aren’t in school. Yet, in Seattle, one in four black middle-school students is suspended each year. In March, racial disparities in student suspension and expulsion rates prompted the U.S. Department of Education to launch a civil rights investigation into Seattle Public Schools.
The League of Education Voters recently traveled with community and education leaders to Baltimore to learn about best practices in discipline. Since 2008, Baltimore City Public Schools decreased suspensions from one in five students per year to one in eight; a similar drop occurred in expulsions.
Baltimore school administrators and education advocates were clear: the decrease was due to the importance of culture and policy; relationships and practice.
As Baltimore’s interim superintendent Tisha Edwards explained, “Without a cultural shift, policy can only result in compliance.” For Edwards, policies do not change hearts and minds.
While skeptics may place “culture” in the category of warm-fuzzies, the Baltimore district leadership made it clear that a cultural shift involves rigor, intention and strong accountability.
Karen N’Dour Webber, the district’s executive director of student support and safety, took us through an extensive, data-driven framework to demonstrate how Baltimore monitors and evaluates school climate. The implementation of this framework initiated a paradigm shift within school culture, while at the same time highlighting areas for improvement.
At the Success Academy, an alternative school where the district educates its most “violent” students following extreme disciplinary incidents, a typical day involves personalized academic work, counseling, and partnerships with community-based organizations. Once students finish their suspension, they return to a traditional school environment.
As we learned in Baltimore, policies are an important first step, but suspensions do not decrease because we assign cut-and-dried consequences to standardized definitions of disciplinary infractions. Suspensions decrease when there are strong relationships in place between adults and students.
What might a cultural shift related to school discipline look like in Washington state? For more than two years, the League of Education Voters has worked with community partners to develop an answer to this question.
Our efforts culminated earlier this year with the passage of a new state discipline law. It requires an end to indefinite expulsions, discipline data to be broken down by demographics and publicly available, and that districts work with families to create a re-engagement plan.
The new law is a first step, but more work needs to be done if we are to move forward with transforming school discipline, eliminating racial disparity and disproportionality in school discipline, and keeping kids in school.
Andaiye Qaasim is a community organizer with the League of Education Voters.