Public schools in Washington last year suspended or expelled more than 41,000 students. But two years after lawmakers passed a bill to change student discipline, new rules have updated a 40-year-old policy.

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You might have seen the headlines: Starting this fall, an update to state rules will make it harder for schools to suspend and expel students.

Here’s the story behind the change: Three years ago, Education Lab and The Seattle Times revealed in a series of stories that school discipline falls more heavily on black and Latino students, who are three times as likely as their white or Asian peers to be suspended. In Seattle and Spokane, the state’s two largest school districts, Education Lab found the racial split begins as early as kindergarten and elementary school.

The extensive reporting on school discipline and its damaging effects ultimately convinced lawmakers — overwhelmed by outcry from parents — to pass legislation in 2016 that shortened suspensions and expulsions for students disciplined for noncriminal behavior.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City U.

· Find out more about Education Lab  

The bill also pushed the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to update its rules on student discipline. Aside from banning schools from excluding students for absences or tardiness, the changes also limit exclusionary discipline for students who do not behave in threatening ways and prohibits all expulsions for kindergarten to fourth-grade students.

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OSPI will give schools two years to train staff and comply with the new rules.

“Every day students are suspended or expelled is a day their education is disrupted,” state schools chief Chris Reykdal said in a statement. “The new rules will minimize that disruption.”

The latest news, announced this week, is that these hard-fought changes are now going into effect.

As of last year, schools in Washington suspended or expelled more than 41,000 students last year. That’s about 3.5 percent of all students in Washington, and it’s a number Reykdal hopes decreases as a result of the new rules.

Reykdal noted in his announcement that the state’s previous rules had been on the books for 40 years.

“While some students do occasionally need discipline, our approach must be different,” he said. “We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe.”