After two years of research, two Washington social-justice groups failed to determine just how many students are expelled from school or suspended for more than 10 days. The lack of data, however, underscored their concern that there are tens of thousands of students who end up in educational limbo, with no clear path to finish...

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Two years ago, two social-justice groups set out to answer a seemingly simple question: How many students in Washington state are expelled from school each year or are suspended for more than 10 days?

They still don’t have a clear answer. In a report released Tuesday, Washington Appleseed and TeamChild were able to identify 9,329 incidents involving an unknown number of students in the 2009-10 school year. Because of inconsistent and incomplete reporting by school districts and the state, they think that number greatly understates the total.

Yet their failure to find a complete answer only underscored their concern that tens of thousands of Washington students, once expelled or suspended, may end up in an educational limbo that doesn’t help the students, the school or their communities.

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While state law requires that all Washington students receive a basic education — even those who are incarcerated — that doesn’t seem to hold for students who are expelled or suspended.

The two groups say that state law leaves it up to school districts to decide whether they will provide education services to such students.

“Exclusionary discipline … has created a blind spot in our education structure,” said Katie Mosehauer, executive director of Washington Appleseed, which works with lawyers and community groups to address social issues. “These kids are being pushed out, they’re not receiving education services, and there’s no clear path for them to come back to school.”

That problem, Mosehauer said, has implications for the greater community, as well as individual students and their families, since students who fail to graduate tend to earn less and some end up committing crimes and in the juvenile-justice system.

While both Appleseed and TeamChild recognize that schools sometimes need to exclude students for safety reasons, the groups say that kicking them out of school usually doesn’t help students solve their problems, which can spill over into their communities.

“Just casting them out and hoping they get those skills we … don’t see that working very effectively,” said Anne Lee, executive director of TeamChild, a free civil legal-aid service for low-income teenagers.

One conclusion the two groups were able to reach: Higher discipline rates are correlated with lower graduation rates. In analyzing data from school districts with 1,000 or more students, they found that, on average, the ones with low suspension/expulsion rates had graduation rates that were 23 percentage points higher than those with high discipline rates.

They also were able to determine that minority students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white peers, and that school districts vary greatly in how often they expel or suspend students. The differing discipline rates, they said, had to do with the kinds of policies the districts had, not whether they were large or small, or located in rich or poor parts of the state.

Based on the data they were able to collect, they’re recommending:

• School districts try new ways of handling problem behavior, and that the state give districts more money and training to do so. In the report, they note that it costs much more to keep a teenager in a juvenile-detention center than in school — about $160 per day, compared with $27.

• School districts be required to provide education services to students who are expelled or suspended for long periods, whether through tutoring or online classes or other ways students can stay on track to graduate.

• No student be expelled for open-ended periods of time, without any way to complete his or her education.

“We want every student to have the opportunity to stay engaged in school,” Mosehauer said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

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