Last year, Washington Appleseed, a nonprofit social-justice group, failed in a quest to tally up even the total number of students suspended and expelled from Washington schools each year.
But with better data from the state this year, the group last week published a much fuller picture, showing the depth of disproportionate discipline in nine school districts, which affects not just students of color but also those in special-education programs, and those from low-income families and in foster care.
In Seattle, for example, the data suggest black students were suspended and expelled at five times the rate of white students in the 2012-13 school year.
And in Bellevue, by Appleseed’s count, special-education students are disciplined three times more often than the average student.
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The data also cast doubt on the view that all suspended students are bad kids, said Katie Mosehauer, Appleseed’s executive director.
About half the time, she said, schools list the reason for a suspension or expulsion as “other,” meaning it didn’t fall into one of the categories that districts are required to report, such as bullying, fighting, using drugs and bringing a weapon to school.
“There is this pervasive view that these kids are dangerous,” she said. “That’s not what the data tells us.”
Appleseed warns against drawing too many conclusions from comparing the nine districts, saying it used preliminary numbers from the state that could contain errors, and because districts vary in how they report the information.
In tallying how many days students miss due to suspensions and expulsions, for example, Federal Way Public Schools counts all the days expelled students are absent, while other schools do not.
Despite those caveats, however, the analysis at the least raises questions, such as why the suspension rate for black students in Seattle is so high.
That might be one reason why the U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether the Seattle district is discriminating against blacks when it comes to discipline.
But Seattle is far from the only district with that pattern.
In Federal Way Public Schools, 16 percent of all black students were excluded from school for a day or more, according to Appleseed’s report, compared with 5 percent of white students and a little under 3 percent of Asians.
Yakima had the biggest overall percentage of suspensions and expulsions — about 13 percent of all students. In Seattle, the overall rate was a little under 6 percent.
Along with the Bellevue, Federal Way, Seattle and Yakima schools districts, Appleseed’s analysis covers Edmonds, Marysville, Olympia, Spokane and Tacoma.
Seattle Public Schools officials, due to spring break, were not available for comment. But they have said the number of suspensions in their schools is dropping.
In Federal Way, Deputy Superintendent Mark Davidson said Appleseed’s numbers mirror the district’s own data.
“We’ve known for years we have a problem,” he said.
The district is encouraging schools to adopt a program — Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) — that focuses on preventing the need for suspensions. A number of schools have started using it, and the district reports that some already are seeing big drops in problem behavior.
But district officials also intend to find other ways to reduce long-term suspensions, which Davidson said don’t accomplish much.
“Kids being out of school isn’t a very effective way to change behavior,” he said. “I don’t think you punish anybody into doing anything.”
Appleseed intends to analyze discipline data for other districts as well.
Mosehauer said she is concerned not just about disparities by race, but also for students in special-education programs as well as those in foster care, or whose families are poor.
In all nine districts, those groups are disciplined at a rate higher than the average student.
“It looks a little jarring that our most vulnerable kids are pushed out the most often,” Mosehauer said.
The data also suggest most students who are suspended are suspended more than once, which she sees as evidence that such discipline has limited value.
Washington Appleseed’s full analysis can be found at www.waappleseed.org.
Overall, about 47,500 Washington students were suspended or expelled in the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
A new state law may change that. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill, which Appleseed and a number of groups supported, that limits suspensions and expulsions to no longer than a year, except in cases where students present a safety risk. The law also requires better data collection and districts to come up with a plan to help students re-enter school.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has urged districts nationwide to expand alternatives to out-of-school discipline, and recently issued a lengthy set of new discipline guidelines.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LShawST