As part of a deep look at school discipline this year, Education Lab reports on the findings of a statewide discipline task force.

Share story

The assignment seemed straightforward: Study school discipline data across Washington, and perhaps refine some definitions. But what the state’s Student Discipline Task Force discovered shocked its 15 members.

Among the more startling findings: More than 10,000 elementary students — some as young as kindergarten — are suspended from Washington classrooms each year, not for bringing in drugs or weapons but for being disobedient, disruptive or disrespectful.

“I was floored by that,” said Edri Geiger, a task force member and former teacher, who sits on the Vancouver School Board. “If there are adults who cannot work with children 5 or 6 years old — good grief! I mean, that’s what we’re here for. If there was something truly violent, like bringing in a gun — sure. But to exclude young children for showing disrespect or being disruptive? I have a hard time with that.”

Geiger’s education was just beginning. Over a year of study, she and the team of educators and policy experts also learned that schools have no legal obligation to keep suspended students up-to-date on classwork. Some kids might get a homework packet, most get nothing.

Most Read Stories

Cyber Sale! Save 90% on digital access.

The irony was not lost on policy-watchers in Olympia.

“If you commit a crime and get sent to juvenile detention, you at least get a teacher,” while students who fiddle with a cell phone during class can miss weeks of instruction, said Kristen Jaudon, spokeswoman for the state education department.

“There’s this strange middle-ground where kids are in limbo,” she said. “The Task Force saw that as unacceptable.”

The federal government has questions too, and has been studying discipline rates in Seattle since 2012. But the Task Force did not wait for the fed’s ruling to conclude: In Washington, “Equitable access to education does not exist for all students, especially students on long term suspensions or expulsions.”

After drilling into the data, speaking with disciplined students and coming up with a dozen recommendations for improvement, the team made another unhappy discovery. Much of the information they wanted — particularly graduation rates for suspended kids — is not routinely collected. Nor can the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction require that schools educate youths who have been sent out of school.

“That really caught us all by surprise,” Geiger said.

Small districts, and others with high suspension rates, insist they’d never be able to cover home tutors for every disciplined child. And after students have been out of school for 20 days, they are often crossed off of enrollment lists: No one’s responsibility.

These holes did not appear to generate tremendous outrage among legislators. Between budget negotiations and this session’s McCleary-driven focus on lowering class sizes, the only bill to address the education of disciplined kids died in a Senate committee.