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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 8, 2014 at 5:00 AM

School discipline: State may track it better but ponders how and why

The state Board of Education today will discuss whether discipline should be monitored as a measure of public school health and/or accountability.

That conversation is yet another sign that school discipline policies — not just in Seattle or even Washington state — are facing increasing scrutiny.

Nationally, the Obama Administration today urged schools to seek alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, especially for nonviolent offenses. Those recommendations were part of a lengthy set of new guidelines for school districts on how to ensure their discipline policies don’t discriminate against students on the basis of race, color or national origin.

In a statement, Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the new guidelines “groundbreaking.”

This guidance makes it crystal clear for schools what their obligations are under our civil rights laws and provides examples of best practices so that they can easily implement positive alternative practices. This is a victory for all who care about creating environments where students can thrive.”

Closer to home, Chris Korsmo of the League of Education Voters, said:

These recommendations come at a critical time for our state and students. Students can’t learn if they aren’t in the classroom. If we are serious about closing our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps, we need to find ways to keep kids in school and learning.

A little more than a year ago, two Washington state nonprofits, Washington Appleseed and TeamChild, released a report that raised questions about whether low-income and minority students in this state are disciplined at higher rates than their white and financially better-off counterparts.

Not long after that, in March, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education  came to light into racial disparities in how Seattle Public Schools metes out suspensions and expulsions, along with a similar probe in Yakima. (No results have been announced yet.)

In the spring, a number of groups, led by the League of Education Voters, lobbied for changes in state policies surrounding discipline, and lawmakers passed a bill that requires school districts to limit the length of suspensions and explusions, provide much more discipline data than in the past.

Now, the state board is looking at how discipline might fit into its work, too.

So far, the board seems to have more questions than answers about how it might track suspensions and expulsions, and why.

Among the questions raised in a report prepared for this week’s board meeting: What should be the board’s goal in monitoring that data?  Reducing suspensions and expulsions across the board? Closing the racial discipline gap? Making sure that suspended and expelled students have a chance to make up their school work, so that the discipline doesn’t put them on a path toward dropping out?

The board also is looking at whether discipline could be part of school accountability, along with academic performance and other measures. The report notes that board staff haven’t found any other state that uses discipline data in that way.

The first issue, however, is whether there is good enough data to even judge what’s happening in school districts across the state. So far, the answer is no. Right now, the state requires districts to report on suspensions and expulsions related to bullying, smoking, alcohol, illicit drugs, fighting, possession of a weapon, and violence with or without a major injury.

But the biggest category — more than 35,000 incidents in the 2012-13 school year — ended up being classified as “unknown.” Starting next year, however, there will be more categories, so the “unknown” category should start to shrink.

Source: Washington State Board of Education

Editor’s note: This story was updated Wednesday afternoon to include reaction to the Obama administration’s new guidelines.

Comments | More in News | Topics: discipline, League of Education Voters, State Board of Education


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