Seeking to create urgency on changing the way schools handle discipline, a Seattle school-board member proposes freezing all elementary-student suspensions.

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Seattle’s school board may declare a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for all elementary students, beginning this September, as a way to force changes in discipline in all schools across the city.

Such a move has been under discussion for several months, said Harium Martin-Morris, the sponsoring school-board member. His resolution — which still allows for suspension in cases of physical harm — will be introduced at next Wednesday’s board meeting, and is scheduled for a vote in August.

“The driver for me was looking at the data itself, and a couple of things jumped out,” Martin-Morris said, citing Seattle’s longtime pattern of disproportionately high suspension rates for black students. African-American children in the city are removed from classrooms at more than four times the rate of their white counterparts.

“Right away, that tells me there’s something structurally going on,” Martin-Morris said, waving off claims that those students merely misbehave more.

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“That just doesn’t make sense. I call it the ‘reasonability test.’ And it fails that test.”

The root cause, he believes, is a cultural disconnect — particularly around the notion of respect.

“For a lot of our kids of color, if they are getting the sense that they are being disrespected — by anyone — they will have an issue with that. As an educator, I need to understand and be aware of this,” he said. “Just like I need respect as the adult in the room, I have to make sure that respect is a two-way street.”

Martin-Morris based his resolution on research from Portland, Minneapolis and Baltimore, showing that kids who are suspended during the “critical learning years” of elementary school are more likely to run into future problems.

As The Seattle Times has reported in several of its Education Lab stories this past school year, skewed suspension rates echo persistent gaps in academic performance between blacks and other student groups. Further, out-of-school suspension has negative effects on both suspended and non-suspended students, according to new research.

Jonathan Knapp, president of Seattle’s teachers union, said educators — who may remove students from class but do not decide on suspensions — also have been seeking better ways to handle disruptive behavior.

But abruptly ending all student removals without establishing alternative methods would be “very challenging,” Knapp said. “That’s always where the tension lies for a teacher.”

Creating such tension is exactly Martin-Morris’ strategy.

“I want to force the issue,” he said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, we need all these things,’ and then sit around talking and talking about it. I’m saying ‘Let’s stop the bus. Let’s all sit down and actually do something about it.’ ”

Of particular interest, both to Martin-Morris and Knapp, are restorative justice approaches — used extensively in Oakland, Calif., — and trauma-informed teaching, which has helped several Spokane-area elementary schools significantly reduce student misbehavior and suspensions.

“We know that lots of behaviors are the result of things in kids’ lives that they bring to school,” Knapp said. “Our traditional response of saying ‘you’ll have to leave if you continue’ tends to be counterproductive.”

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