The District’s traditional and charter schools would be prohibited from expelling or suspending pre-kindergartners in most circumstances under new legislation that D.C. Council member David Grosso plans to introduce Monday, part of a broader push to reduce punishments that keep students out of class.
The move comes in response to a recent city report on school discipline that showed that 3- and 4-year-olds received out-of-school suspensions 181 times during the 2012-2013 school year.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Grosso (I-At Large), who said that he can’t fathom why a school would need to suspend such young children and that nobody has yet been able to explain to him why that would be necessary. “The whole school-to-prison pipeline, it all starts right there in the younger years.”
The city discipline report, from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, found that 10,000 of the District’s 80,000 students were suspended at least once during the 2012-2013 school year.
The report also found that minority students are disproportionately affected. Black students in the District were almost six times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students. Students with disabilities and poor and homeless children also were more likely to be disciplined.
“D.C. is disproportionately suspending the kids who most need to be in a supportive, structured school environment,” said Eduardo Ferrer of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, an organization that advocates for juvenile justice reforms. “So, basically, schools are excluding kids who have experienced various levels of trauma instead of acting as a protective factor from trauma.”
The local disparities mirror national trends: Across the country, poor and minority students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white and affluent peers, and there are clear links between those disciplinary events and increased chances of dropping out and entering the judicial system.
It’s an issue that has drawn increasing national attention. Two years ago, the Obama administration established a federal initiative to address the connection between students’ offenses and judicial involvement. In January, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the first national school discipline guidelines, urging schools to find more constructive ways than suspension and expulsion to deal with minor infractions.
“The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is frankly long overdue,” Duncan said at the time.
D.C. activists have been raising alarms for years about the city’s high suspension rates, but OSSE’s recent report was the city’s first attempt to create a comprehensive portrait of disciplinary incidents in both traditional and charter schools.
Activists called the report an important step toward understanding the disparate impact of suspensions and expulsions but said that it still provides only a partial picture, because disciplinary incidents are not reported uniformly: The federal government requires all schools to report discipline stemming from incidents involving drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence, but there is no such federal requirement for reporting less-serious infractions.
Grosso’s bill would require all schools to provide OSSE with an annual report detailing which students were suspended, along with the length of and reason for each suspension. That information is meant to help the agency identify the connection between disciplinary incidents and students’ long-term prospects, including their chances of dropping out.
“We need to do a better job of understanding the causes of students disconnecting so we can intervene,” said Jeff Noel, OSSE’s director of data, assessment and research.
Based on available data, OSSE found that middle school students are suspended at far higher rates than other students. And although charter schools expel students at far higher rates than traditional schools, students in traditional schools are suspended more frequently than students in charter schools.
Delonte Williams, 20, graduated from the school system’s Luke C. Moore High last year. He said that before transferring to that school, he was suspended for three months for allegedly throwing a stick at a teacher, an infraction he said he didn’t commit and an experience that he says nearly derailed his graduation.
He has been working with the nonprofit Critical Exposure program to advocate for alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice programs that encourage students to talk through incidents with one another and to find meaningful ways to atone for their wrongdoings.
“Once you get suspended, you just start being nonchalant, because you already have that overhead, like, he’s a problem child,” Williams said. “It’s just a cycle.”
Ceasing suspension of pre-kindergartners is one of several recommendations that OSSE made to begin reducing disciplinary incidents citywide. The agency argues that 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t able to fully connect their misbehavior with the punishment, and that children are often disciplined for behavior that is developmentally appropriate for their age.
“In D.C., pre-K students have been punished for temper tantrums, classroom disruption, repeated vulgarity, and bathroom mishaps,” according to OSSE’s report.
The District’s traditional public school system issued a new policy this year that prohibits suspension of early childhood students. The school system encourages schools to look at alternatives to suspensions for low-level infractions and wants to make sure students are treated equally.
“DCPS wants to ensure that every child is treated fairly and has access to a quality education in a safe and welcoming school environment,” said D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz. “We work closely with school leaders to support their behavior work. Currently, we are working with school leaders to build out and expand school climate plans to ensure equity on all levels.”
It is not clear how Grosso’s bill to ban suspensions and expulsions of the city’s youngest children will be received by charter schools, which have the latitude to develop their own rules and discipline structures, and which vigorously defend their autonomy from most local rules. The bill would allow suspensions and expulsions of the city’s youngest students under limited conditions, including if they cause someone “serious bodily harm” or possess drugs, alcohol or a weapon.
AppleTree Early Learning, a network of seven charter schools, suspended pre-kindergartners 81 times in 2012-2013, according to OSSE data, accounting for nearly half the pre-K suspensions citywide.
Jack McCarthy, AppleTree’s executive director, said OSSE’s data includes students who were sent home early, often because they had done something to create a safety concern such as biting another child or other violence.
McCarthy said he could not take a position on banning suspensions of young children, but he said he is open to talking with OSSE about crafting new policies.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said prohibiting early childhood suspensions is an “idea worth further discussion” but said that discussion must include school leaders who can explain why they have sometimes needed to suspend or expel a very young child.
Some schools have encountered young students who are violent, posing a safety issue, while others use suspension to send a message to the parent of a child who is habitually tardy, Pearson said.
“A lot of families choose charter schools because they appreciate that it’s an orderly environment, an environment that permits learning to take place because antisocial behavior is addressed more quickly,” Pearson said.
The charter board began publishing school-by-school suspension and expulsion figures two years ago with the philosophy that transparency, rather than new regulations, was the best way to encourage schools to make changes. The board also began reaching out to schools to push them to make changes when there are disparities among different student groups.
Since 2012, the overall charter expulsion rate has dropped by half and the suspension rate by 25 percent, according to board officials. Pearson said that while charter schools need more city-funded mental health professionals to help students handle their underlying problems, the board continues to think that transparency with data, together with targeted intervention for schools with clear problems, is a better way to bring about change than new rules or laws.
“Our approach is working, and working in a way that is respectful of the diversity of our different schools,” Pearson said.
Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.