Seattle is offered an example of success in fighting school-discipline disparities.

Share story

I was glad to see that some folks from Oakland, Calif., are coming to Seattle to talk about their school district’s success in cutting suspensions and reducing the out-of-proportion impact its discipline policies had on black and Latino children.

Seattle schools have a problem. Black students in particular are removed from classrooms at more than four times the rate of their white peers. And the difference is mostly not in clear cases of fighting or carrying a weapon, but in areas where an adult makes a judgment about a behavior, deciding whether it’s disrespectful or disruptive, for instance, then deciding whether punishment is necessary.

In schools across the country, those kinds of decisions have fallen hardest on black and Hispanic students and on students from low-income families. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

School-discipline disparities of that sort are born of failures to communicate, the rubbing together of differently socialized people, and structures left in place from before the goal was to educate all children.

Addressing those interrelated issues can improve outcomes for children whose fortunes are at risk and make schools better places for all children and for teachers and administrators.

And yet, I keep hearing people debating whether teachers or some students are just bad. Well, some of the problem is due to individuals, teachers, students and administrators who have deep personal problems, but we don’t have to get stuck on their issues before moving forward.

There are educators, schools, even whole districts who are moving toward a better way of not just maintaining order, but improving education. The Seattle School District has been talking about the problem for more than 20 years. It should listen to the success stories and act on them.

This month, Seattle School Board member Harium Martin-Morris put forth a resolution asking the board to place a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for elementary schools. He said the data make it clear something is wrong with the structure of school discipline. The board is scheduled to vote on his resolution in August.

The situation in Oakland as in Seattle was bad enough to draw in the U.S. Department of Education to investigate. In September 2012, the Oakland district became the first school system to sign a voluntary agreement with the department to take concrete steps to reduce the disparities.

Oakland has cut its suspension rate in half, while the situation in Seattle has gotten worse at some schools. That is why several local organizations, including the city of Seattle, stepped up and invited four people involved in the Oakland improvements to speak in Seattle about their ongoing work.

Oakland used several tools to make changes, two of which, restorative justice and trauma-informed care, are already being used by some districts in Washington.

Those tools change the existing discipline structure, address communication and socialization issues and improve everyone’s social skills.

At its simplest, restorative justice is about moving from automatically punishing behavior to figuring out why it happened and helping students understand the impact of their behavior and to participate in repairing any damage it has done.

Trauma-informed care takes into account years of research about life circumstances that can cause students to react in ways that someone who has not experienced their traumas might not understand.

Teachers also learn to recognize when differences in interpretation of behaviors lead them to mislabel behavior based in cultural differences, speaking bluntly for instance.

Understanding is key, and it doesn’t lead to excusing any truly disruptive behavior, but is the beginning of educating a child.

Children who live in households and neighborhoods where poverty is high are subject to a long list of problems that can affect their school life.

A report this week from the Pew Research Center analyzed census poverty data from 2013 and found that poverty had declined for all but one racial group of children since 2010. The poverty rate for black children, always high, remained 38.3 percent.

The poverty rate for Hispanic children is 30.4, for Asian-American children 10.1 and for white children 10.7.

Schools can address the issues raised by that poverty or contribute to its continuation. Nothing good happens when children are suspended or expelled. Research shows it doesn’t solve any perceived or actual behavior problems. It contributes to making things worse, putting children further behind in class, contributing to children dropping out and being caught up in the criminal-justice system.

Oakland cut its dropout rate and improved academic performance. What are we waiting for?

Two public meetings are scheduled Friday with the Oakland speakers: from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave., Bertha Knight Landes Room, and from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at Seattle’s South Shore PK-8 School, 4800 S. Henderson St.

You can read more about school discipline at