The Seattle School Board’s resolution calls for a one-year moratorium on some out-of-school suspensions for elementary students, and a plan to reduce such suspensions for all students.
The Seattle School Board has declared a one-year moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for elementary students who commit certain nonviolent offenses.
The moratorium will start this school year, as outlined in a resolution approved by the School Board at its Wednesday meeting.
The vote was unanimous.
“This is a step forward for all of us,” board member Betty Patu said. “These are our kids, and we need to do whatever we can to make sure they stay in school. I’m really excited we are actually making this a reality.”
The resolution originally proposed placing a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for any offense other than ones that threatened health and safety. It was amended to target suspensions only for disruptive conduct, rule breaking and disobedience.
In the 2014-15 school year, 111 elementary students were suspended for disruptive behavior, 10 were suspended for rule breaking and 25 were suspended for disobedience, according to district data. The three offenses make up about a fourth of all elementary-students suspensions. A significant number of the rest of the suspensions were for assault, fighting and threats of violence, which are all considered exceptional misconduct and warrant an immediate suspension.
Board member Harium Martin-Morris, who sponsored the resolution, said its purpose is to eventually stop suspending students at all grade levels who may disrupt class but aren’t violent.
Such behaviors, he said, are “hard to quantify … as something worthy of something as severe as a suspension.”
Martin-Morris based his resolution on research from Portland, Minneapolis and Baltimore, showing that kids who are suspended during the “critical learning years” of elementary school are more likely to run into future problems.
As The Seattle Times has reported in several of its Education Lab stories this past school year, skewed suspension rates echo persistent gaps in academic performance between blacks and other student groups. Further, out-of-school suspension has negative effects on all students, according to new research.
The district hopes the board’s resolution will help make discipline more consistent from school to school.
Now there is a gray area in how teachers and administrators should respond to bad behavior, said district spokeswoman Stacy Howard.
“What is disobedience to one teacher might not be to another teacher,” she said.
Though Seattle’s suspension rate is lower than the state average, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, students of color, as well as English-language learners and special-education students, are still suspended at higher rates than their white peers, according to state and district data. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation in Seattle schools’ treatment of black students, looking at whether teachers and administrators discipline them more frequently and harshly than their white peers. That investigation is continuing.
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The resolution doesn’t address what schools should do as an alternative to suspensions. This was intentional, Martin-Morris said.
“There is a lot we don’t know,” Martin-Morris said. “Is it a climate issue? Is it an expectation issue? Is it a training issue? I’m not trying to say the staff or something or the parents are doing something wrong. I’m saying ‘let’s all sit down and figure out what we need to do right,’ to refocus that energy on the positive.”
The resolution also calls for the district to develop a plan by next year to significantly reduce suspensions for all grade levels and a method to collect more data on the suspensions that do occur. The idea is to halt what some see as the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We want to starve the pipeline at the source,” Martin-Morris said.
Other area districts have worked to find discipline alternatives, such as in-school suspension rooms. In Highline, which set a goal two years ago to eliminate all out-of-school suspensions, the numbers are down dramatically, spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers said. In the 2007-08 school year, there were nearly 3,200 suspensions and expulsions. Last year, there were 685.
Highline still suspends students considered to be a danger to themselves or others.
“If it’s normal teenage behavior, even fighting, we don’t want them to be removed from school and then fall even more behind,” Carbone Rogers said.
The Kent School District stopped sending as many students home for bad behavior in fall 2011, instead opting for in-school suspensions. Since that time, the number of students suspended out of school has decreased by more than 30 percent.