Share story

Paul Tong / Op Art
Paul Tong / Op Art

A year ago this month, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education publicly acknowledged it was investigating racial disparities in student discipline in Seattle’s public schools.

So is the investigation close to completion?

No clue. The silence from the federal education department remains as thick as it was a year ago.

“About all we can tell you is that the compliance review remains under investigation,” a spokesman said Wednesday.

Seattle Public Schools officials say they don’t know the status of the investigation, either.    But they also say they are working to  reduce the number of suspensions in their schools.

Federal investigators last visited some Seattle schools late last year, saying they wanted to do more interviews, said Pat Sander, a district  administrator. But they have not called to set those interviews up, she said.

Meanwhile, federal education officials continue to push for change at the national level.

In January, for example, the department urged all school districts to expand alternatives to out-of-school discipline, and issued a lengthy set of new discipline guidelines.

Last week, it released a detailed analysis that underscored the well-known fact in most school districts across the nation, black and Latino students are expelled and suspended at much higher rates than their white and Asian counterparts. That report also said black and Hispanic students have less access to rigorous classes and receive harsher discipline as early as preschool.

At the same time, President Obama announced he wants to start a new, $300 million grant program aimed at ending such racial disparities.

On Seattle’s end, the district continues to be willing to enter into a “voluntary resolution” with the federal government, Sander said.

Suspensions across the district continue to go down, she said, and a number of schools have started new efforts to reduce the amount of school students miss due to behavior problems.

Two district committees also continue to study the issue and make recommendations to the superintendent.  Information on one of those can be found here.

One change that’s already happened: Sander said the district has significantly reduced the number of offenses that could lead to the suspension of an elementary school student.

In a separate effort, about 40 Seattle teachers are participating in a series of training sessions, created and provided by their local union, aimed at helping teachers improve their skills communicating with students from different cultural backgrounds. President Jonathan Knapp said his members wanted to move faster than the district was moving.

Seattle has yet to do anything as dramatic as Baltimore, which is viewed as a national model, or the Highline School District south of Seattle, which has pledged to end nearly all out-of-school suspensions by 2015.

A handful of schools also are trying what’s called restorative justice as an alternative to suspensions, said Nicholas Bradford, founder and, to date, sole employee of the Restorative Justice Center of the Northwest.

Bradford said he’s been working with several schools in Highline, First Creek Middle in Tacoma, and most recently, a pilot project at Odle Middle in Bellevue.

But none in Seattle – or many other places in the state. At least yet.