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Gloria Briggs hasn’t forgotten how she felt when her son’s high school called her at work to say he was being suspended.

“Oh, no. My heart drops.”

When she arrived at Garfield High and was told the offense was possession of a dangerous weapon, her heart dropped even more.

This didn’t sound like her son, Troy Washington, a freshman who had never been in trouble.

Seattle Public Schools officials would not discuss Troy’s or other cases, citing privacy rules, but Briggs said his offense turned out to be playing with a laser pen that another boy had brought to a classroom.

The penalty ultimately was reduced from a long-term suspension through final exams to just three days. Now, nearly two years later, Troy, who is African-American, is doing fine at Cleveland High, Briggs said, taking math and tech classes, volunteering for nonprofit groups and thinking about what college he will attend.

But news the U.S. Department of Education is investigating Seattle Public Schools’ disciplinary practices reminded her how easily her son’s academic future could have been derailed by such a troubling mark on his record.

The department said Tuesday its Office for Civil Rights is studying whether Seattle schools discriminate against African-American students by disciplining them “more frequently and more harshly than similarly situated white students.”

The problem is not new — Seattle Schools superintendents have bemoaned the discipline gap for more than a quarter century and declared its eradication a priority.

The numbers haven’t budged: From elementary to high school, black students in Seattle are, on average, suspended or expelled more than three times as frequently as white students.

Nor is it a uniquely Seattle phenomenon, but one that has bedeviled districts across the country.

With U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declaring education “the civil rights of our generation,” his department has begun to focus on disproportionate discipline.

California’s Oakland School District, in an agreement reached with the department in September, promised to cut back on out-of-school suspensions and work to prevent racial discrimination. Duncan said the Oakland agreement could serve as a model for other districts.

In Seattle, efforts to address its long-standing disproportionate-discipline problem have gathered steam then faded as superintendents have come and gone, funding has been granted and then run out, promising programs have been started and scrapped.

“The district has had committee after committee, report after report, and it’s kind of like a little progress and then a stall, a little bit of progress,” said Julie Nelson, director of the city of Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights.

“If you look at the data over time, we haven’t made a dent in it.”

Nelson continues to serve on school-district committees and other groups studying the problem in the hope that this time, the outcome will be different.

Biggest disparities

In Seattle, some of the biggest disparities show up in schools with relatively small numbers of black students.

For example, in the 2009-10 school year — the latest year for which data were available — 21 percent of all African-American students at Nathan Hale High School were disciplined, compared to only 4.8 percent of all other students.

That same year, Rainier Beach High, which has a higher percentage of black students, had a smaller discipline gap, but still suspended more than 19 percent of its African-American students.

Rainier Beach PTSA President Rita Green has heard countless stories of black students who received harsher punishments than white students for infractions that seemed identical.

Green, who is African-American, said she believes “a lot of culturally incompetent teachers are put in classrooms teaching diverse students, and they don’t have any experience, and they don’t respect them.”

In the 2007-09 school years, when Green’s son was at Mercer Middle School, she and other parents pored through suspension data and came up with a list of five teachers who were far more likely than their peers to refer black students to the office for discipline.

Green said that after the parents showed the teacher data to the principal, the suspension numbers for black students started to go down, but were still higher than for other races.

The overall racial disparity in Seattle schools is similar to what a privately funded study has found in Washington.

“Reclaiming Students,” a 2012 study by Washington Appleseed and TeamChild, found that suspensions and expulsions hurt all children but are hardest on low-income and minority students, who are half as likely as white students to continue studying online, through homework or in other ways.

Appleseed and TeamChild recommended drastically reducing out-of-school suspensions — a position that is finding growing favor among educators.

Susan Enfield, the former Seattle Schools superintendent who now runs the Highline School District, has set a goal of ending out-of-school suspensions there by 2015.

“We’re developing alternatives to keeping kids out of school because we know if kids are out of school, they can’t learn, and you can start a kid spiraling down a path they can’t get out of,” said Highline spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers.

Reasons for gap

Reasons for the discipline gap and the academic-achievement gap overlap: poverty, inequality, racism, a lack of diversity among the teaching staff and a failure to understand different cultures.

Suspensions almost surely exacerbate the achievement gap.

“I think much of the underlying issue is poverty, as well as single-parent households,” said Seattle School Board member Michael DeBell. He said students who live in poorer households tend to receive more disciplinary actions — perhaps because the long hours of the working poor leave them less time to get involved in their children’s education.

Principals who zealously enforce every infraction end up suspending more students, DeBell said, “If you’re more willing to take each case over its own circumstances, have a more flexible attitude, you’ll have fewer cases.”

Bernardo Ruiz, Seattle Public Schools’ equity and race director, said it is preposterous to suggest children and their families are to blame for disproportionate discipline.

Ruiz said a white teacher untrained in cultural differences could get into an unnecessary confrontation by saying to a black student who enters the classroom after the bell: “Thank you for coming, you’ve graced us with your presence.”

Linda Mangel, education equity director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, said studies show little racial disparity in discipline for “objective” infractions such as fighting or bringing a gun to school.

“Where the racial disparity kicks in, all the discipline data says, is when you look at the subjective reasons for discipline, things like disrespect or being disruptive, excessive noise, loitering,” Mangel said.

Weak teachers are more likely to lose control of a class and send students to the office for discipline, said Phil Brockman, executive director of K-12 operations and a former principal. He believes part of the solution should include better teacher training and hiring a more diverse staff. “To me, personally, it’s the relationships,” he said. “We need to have teachers who know and understand, who have cultural competency, treating students with dignity and respect. When they know you care, they respond.”

Personal touch

That personal touch is something Gloria Briggs felt was lacking at Garfield but said her son found at Cleveland, where he transferred after the Garfield incident.

When Troy was accused of possessing a dangerous weapon at Garfield, she said, an administrator inaccurately wrote that he had been the one who brought the device to school. Briggs said the administrator made matters worse in a disciplinary meeting by saying, “I’ve had problems with Troy before,” apparently confusing him with another student.

A review of Troy’s file showed he had never been referred to the principal’s office or otherwise disciplined, Briggs said.

“Just think if I was a parent who didn’t know what to do, who didn’t know I had the right to appeal the suspension,” Briggs said. “My child would have been ruined; he would have failed all his courses that semester; he would have had on his record being in possession of a dangerous weapon.”

Briggs believes the academic success of black students depends, in part, on seeing teachers of their own race.

On that front, the district has also struggled.

Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, said he was disappointed the district wasn’t doing more to recruit black teachers, pushed it to try harder, and was pleased to join a recruiting effort at the National Alliance of Black School Educators conference in Nashville last fall.

A training effort a decade ago, Courageous Conversations on Race, helped teachers understand and work with students of other cultures, Knapp said, but, with a change in superintendents, “it just kind of went away.”

After news broke last week that the Department of Education is studying discipline in Seattle, Superintendent José Banda acknowledged the problem and said he will work with the federal government to find solutions.

Already, Cleveland High is developing a “restorative justice” program in which people in conflict negotiate appropriate punishment and how to make any victim whole.

The district also recently set up two committees to study discipline and racial fairness, one called Equity and Race, the other, Positive Climate and Discipline.

Pat Sander, liaison to the second committee, said Aki Kurose Middle School Academy and Broadview-Thompson K-8 School are building programs intended to make misconduct and discipline less frequent.

Neighboring districts are making similar efforts, and Oakland has agreed to institute a variety of programs for restorative justice, improved school climate and support for African-American male students.

Oakland also has committed to avoid suspensions or expulsions as much as possible; to work with experts to curb discriminatory discipline; give more help to at-risk students; improve staff training; revise discipline policies; and survey students, staff members and families each year.

Oakland spokesman Troy Flint said the district was already focused on raising achievement for African-American males, who were struggling academically.

“When students fall behind, they become frustrated and lash out … and this is an underlying part of discipline problems,” Flint said.

Some of the policies have not yet been fully put in place, and it will be another year before Oakland will be able to crunch the numbers and find out if its efforts are working.

Whatever steps schools take, parents must play a role as well, said Green, the Rainier Beach parent.

She encourages parents to become involved in their child’s education, she said, so that “you’re holding the child accountable, as well as the teacher accountable.”

“As a parent, we can file lawsuits and testify at School Board meetings, and one day things may change,” Green said. “But the fastest way to change things is for you, as a parent, to be engaged.”

This report includes archived material from The New York Times. Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or