In the fourth quarter of 2017, Councilmember David Grosso, the chairperson of the Committee on Education, introduced the “Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017” with three co-sponsors. The bill would severely limit the use of out-of-school suspensions and instead ask educators to create a positive school climate through restorative practices and other effective approaches. For kindergarten through eighth grade students, out-of-school suspensions would only be issued when a student willfully causes or threatens significant bodily injury or emotional distress. For ninth through twelfth grade students, suspensions would be allowed for most serious offenses laid out in school policy, but specifically prohibited for dress code violations, missing class, behavior that happens off school grounds, or behavioral infractions like defiance. The proposed bill also places limits on the consecutive and cumulative number of days that a student can be suspended over a school year.
What problem is the bill attempting to solve?
Suspension rates show that black students are disciplined more often and more severely than their counterparts, both nationally and in D.C.’s schools. Among other outcomes, research shows that suspensions are linked to lower academic performance. For example, a recent meta-analysis, or a statistical breakdown that aggregates the results of multiple studies, found that academic achievement declined as suspensions increased, with a stronger association between out-of-school suspension and performance than in-school suspension.
The intent of the bill is to reduce interruptions to learning and disparate treatment of students of different backgrounds, especially among economically disadvantaged, Special Education, and black students who are currently suspended at higher rates in D.C. Another goal is to eliminate the use of out-of-school suspensions as a means to move discipline issues off campus and keep students as engaged as possible in school. Yet, many education leaders, including the heads of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), oppose the bill.
What policy fix does the bill offer?
The bill places a focus on continuity in school work despite how a student is disciplined, whether through in-school interventions or in extraordinary circumstances that call for suspensions. With appropriate supports addressing students’ needs and reducing suspensions, Councilmember Grosso hopes to make students feel more at home in schools, which could help increase attendance and in the long run contribute to narrowing the achievement gap.
Schools would modify school discipline policies to prohibit less serious reasons for suspension. The Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) would promote trauma-informed educational settings, which equip educators, as first responders, along with mental health practitioners – counselors, psychologists, and social workers – to serve students experiencing trauma. School administrators and educators would implement a restorative justice approach, in which students repair harm done in a school community and preserve suspensions only for the most extreme cases.
However, implementing effective partial suspension bans and restorative justice calls for school community buy-in from students, administrators, and parents or guardians. Mobilizing all parties to subscribe to these principles is not straightforward and may take time.
What are the arguments for adopting this fix in D.C.?
Many other school districts are taking steps to eliminate discriminatory discipline practices that contribute to lower outcomes for minority and low-income students. The “Student Fair Access to School Act” follows a decade of 27 states and 42 of America’s 100 largest cities amending school discipline policy to reduce school actors from issuing suspensions as well as The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “Dear Colleague” letter of 2014 that provided guidance on reducing and eliminating discriminatory discipline. Many advocates fighting to improve school discipline have sounded the alarm on these issues, pointing to implicit bias as a factor in the nonviolent disruptive penalty issuances that comprise the majority of suspensions. For instance, a recent Brookings study shows that black students are suspended longer than white students when they are involved in the same fight. In response, the D.C. bill bans suspensions for subjective reasons that may be more influenced by implicit bias to reduce disparities in discipline outcomes.
What are the arguments against this bill for D.C.?
Shortly after the introduction of the “Student Fair Access to School Act,” Chancellor Antwan Wilson of DCPS and Executive Director Scott Pearson of DC PCSB came out in joint opposition of the bill. Their statement asserted that school leaders have already thoughtfully worked to address suspensions, reducing rates by five percentage points over the past five years. They believe school leaders are best equipped to manage suspensions instead of uniform legislation, and suggest that policy should be directed toward ameliorating issues in students’ lives outside of school instead.
Alternative public policy that addresses poverty — like homelessness or poor access to quality social services — in the nation’s capital could reduce adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress that burdens students. As a regional example, a recent Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) report highlighted the role that Maryland Meals for Achievement had in reducing suspensions, among other positive outcomes, as a state policy that provides nutritious breakfast for Maryland students in school.
Finally, replacing suspensions with restorative justice can be a challenge. For instance, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a recent policy prohibited suspension use for nonviolent willful defiance, reducing suspension rates from 8 percent to 0.6 percent. However, some teachers describe their classrooms as “reeling from unruly students” due to inadequate staffing and training to accompany the policy switch. And a Washington state district, Highline, saw teacher turnover jump in the two years after the district banned suspensions “except when critical for student and staff safety”, even with training and implementation of a program to build students’ social skills.
What success could look like for D.C.
Last week, OSSE released the State of Discipline: 2016-17 School Year report, which showed an increase in the disparate impact of suspensions on black students in comparison to their white peers. This widening gap in discipline outcomes makes reducing disparities in suspension rates even more urgent. What is needed to implement a partial suspension ban and shift to alternative practices effectively?
The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) (former home to DCPS Chancellor Wilson) provides an example of restorative justice programming that includes behavioral and mental health professionals collaborating with educators, students, and community members, as well as a three-tier system for disciplinary responses. In the first tier, students raise issues and concerns in community building circles. The second tier provides conflict mediation for specific harm where aggrieved parties seek restoration and reparations in front of smaller group of students and adults. The third and final tier facilitates reentry for students who have been asked to temporarily leave the school community. As a result, OUSD schools have seen significant decreases in suspension rates and attendance increases over the past ten years. According to a recent International Institute for Restorative Practices report, schools in other states across the country (Maryland and Pennsylvania, for example) have replicated restorative justice models similar to OUSD and have reduced suspension rates.
While restorative justice has promising research findings and grown in popularity within recent years, this school intervention approach is still in its early stages. Meaningful and sustainable implementation of restorative justice district-wide requires time, resources, and a strong internal commitment from school administration, educators, and the wider school community. Two structural components are particularly necessary to implement the proposed partial suspension bill with success in D.C.:
- Adequate mental health professionals. While the bill would support training for educators, it wouldn’t increase the number of mental health practitioners in schools. Currently, the Department of Behavioral Health allocates school mental health services based on need to about 60 schools. In addition, DCPS has 172 school-based social workers, and almost all public charter schools report some mental health staff (such as counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other therapists). Councilmember Grosso intends to further increase funding in this area, stating last month that funding more social workers, child psychologists, and school-based mental health providers is his top budget priority. Also last week, Executive Director of DC PCSB, Scott Pearson, committed to working with Grosso to bolster behavioral and mental health professionals in D.C. public schools. These policy pushes could be the necessary steps to create more trauma-informed school practices in the District.
- Healthy school environments. In order for students to feel safe and supported in their schools, a more holistic approach is needed. Education policy should not simply react to address crises, but should instead create environments where all students—regardless of background—feel they deserve to be within school walls, and want to be there. In the words of educator and activist Brittany Packnett, students deserve not only interventions and services to keep them in schools on the back end, but also educators and curricula where they see themselves reflected on the front end.
A public hearing will be held on January 30 to determine the viability of the “Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017”. A D.C. council vote will be forthcoming after the public hearing session.
Joshua Ddamulira currently works as a policy and advocacy associate for the Data Quality Campaign.