School discipline reforms may be coming to D.C. thanks to new bill

"Black students in Washington, D.C. are 7 times more likely to be suspended than white students—that should outrage us all."

Using a restorative justice model, which includes teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, seventh graders talk with assistant principals and a counselor about a recent conflict at Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, Oct. 16, 2015. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Using a restorative justice model, which includes teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, seventh graders talk with assistant principals and a counselor about a recent conflict at Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, Oct. 16, 2015. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I) introduced a bill on Tuesday that would limit the use of suspension and expulsion in kindergarten to eighth grade to more serious infractions, such as attempting or carrying out physical injury. It would also ban suspensions in high school for minor incidents like disobedience and uniform violations.

In a statement on the legislation, Grosso said, “Despite the progress made over the past years, black students in Washington, D.C. are 7 times more likely to be suspended than white students—that should outrage us all.”

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The proposed legislation aims to address some of the racial bias when it comes to school discipline. A January report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education that analyzed data for over 90,000 students enrolled in traditional public schools or public charter schools found that Black students in the district were nearly seven times more likely to be suspended than white students. According to the report, more than half of out-of-school suspensions happened in charter schools. The U.S. Department of Education released national data on school discipline and racial disparities in 2016 that showed Black preschool children were 3.6 times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. In K-12, Black students were 1.9 times more likely than white students to be expelled from school without educational services. Black students were also 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of officers.

The proposed bill requires local education agencies to provide support that would promote trauma-informed educational settings, since many students who are suspended and expelled have experienced trauma and have behavioral challenges, as well as and restorative justice practices. Both D.C. traditional public schools and charter schools would be required to have discipline policies that “avoid exclusion, address bias, and seek the root causes of misbehavior.” Schools must also ensure that a student’s education continues while they are suspended and have a plan for bringing students back into the school community once a suspension is over. Research out of Stanford University has shown that teachers may use harsher discipline on a Black student when they misbehave a second time than they would for a white student.

Grosso’s bill is similar to other kinds of student discipline reforms that aim to reduce disproportionately higher rates of suspension among Black students and students with disabilities. More school systems are considering pathways to reform that address the trauma of students who attend schools in low-income neighborhoods, provide more support to students who have behavioral challenges, and take a less arbitrary, more well-defined approach to determining what actions are worthy of harsh discipline and which can be resolved without taking students out of school and perpetuating racial inequities in the education system. Denver has been working on school discipline reforms for years. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland schools banned willful defiance suspensions, which could apply to a wide range of student conduct that school staff disapprove of. Miami-Dade County schools got rid of out-of-school suspensions altogether in 2015.

In Upstate New York, the Syracuse school district adopted reforms after the attorney general’s office investigated racial disparities in student discipline. This plan required a commitment to holding implicit bias and cultural competency training, changing the code of conduct, and adopting restorative practices that would allow students to communicate with students and teachers they have conflicts with, resolve those conflicts, and bring them back into the school. But the plan has had its challenges. The district reduced the number of yearly suspensions by half but significant racial disparities in suspensions still existed in January.

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Some teachers have resisted these types of reforms or have significant doubts about them. Teachers in Fresno, California and Des Moines, Iowa came out against these efforts, Education Week reported. They say that these kinds of overhauls are making classrooms difficult to manage. According to the Fresno Bee, some teachers say they believe in the reforms but say they are not being implemented effectively. The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million members, passed a resolution this year that supported restorative justice practices and the end of zero tolerance policies to address disparities in student discipline, among other measures.

Schools are also trying to incorporate proper training for school resource officers as they attempt to implement reforms. Last year, a school resource officer put a 14 year-old Syracuse boy in a chokehold. The teenager said he was walking home from school with his brother and they tried to break up a fight. Two Syracuse police officers who work as school resource officers saw the scene. The boy said one officer grabbed him by the neck, threw him to the ground, and held him in a chokehold. His family is suing the city police department.

In the past 15 years, there has been a rise in the number of officers in schools. There are as many as 17,000 school resource officers in the United States, according to the last survey by the DOJ that looked at the number of officers in 2007. The survey hasn’t been repeated since. With the rise in the number of officers in schools, and lack of clarity on how officers should behave in schools, there has been increased attention on incidents involving officers who may use force inappropriately. Like the Syracuse incident, officers have slammed students on the ground in North CarolinaSouth Carolina, and Texas, with some gaining national attention and others fading after some local news coverage. Many of these incidents involved white officers slamming students of color to the ground,

After a number of these incidents gained media attention, the Obama administration addressed the issue of school resource officers’ role in the classroom. In 2014, the administration released guidance on the issue of reducing disparities in student discipline and in 2016, it released further guidance that said officers should not try to manage classroom behavior and that too often, officers would detain kids for minor acts of misbehavior. The guidance addressed the issue of law enforcement officers viewing schools the same way as they do when they’re out on patrol. A 2009 study from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville found that law enforcement officers are more likely to see a classroom disruption as criminal conduct even though no one’s safety is at risk, such as a student refusing to sit down.

But under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the conversation on student discipline is changing quickly. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos said she would  “defer to the judgment of state and local officials” on when asked about biased discipline in school. Under her leadership, the department scaled back civil rights investigations, including those that look at racially biased student discipline and bias against students with disabilities. Last week, education department officials met with teachers and parents who oppose student discipline reforms and say that they were assaulted by students and that such approaches create a disruptive learning environment. According to Politico, the meeting was to discuss getting rid of 2014 education department guidance on how schools could avoid discriminating against students while ensuring students could learn in a safe environment.