Testimony of Alex Peerman, Policy & Advocacy Associate
Good morning Chairman Catania, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Alex Peerman and I am the Policy and Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service organization that seeks to improve DC’s youth justice system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today at the performance oversight hearing for DC Public Schools.
As youth justice advocates, we want the best outcomes for DC children, and being engaged in and successful at school places youth on the path to successful adulthood. For this reason, we applaud the Committee’s efforts to have every student in school every day of the school year. In the coming fiscal year, DC Lawyers for Youth hopes to see a broader effort to promote school engagement, which encompasses not only school attendance, but also a positive school climate and effective school discipline. My testimony today will focus on the current use of suspension in DCPS schools, the negative impact of those suspensions, and steps that the Council could take to help DCPS decrease its use of these practices.
DCPS Disciplinary Practices
To the District’s credit, DCPS disciplinary policy already prohibits suspension for some of the most minor misbehaviors like dress code violations or being late to class. Also, we commend DCPS for its timely collection and reporting of disciplinary data, including its participation in the new joint DCPS/PCSB Equity Reports. Gathering and publishing these data is the first step to improving policy. More importantly, the data show that DCPS schools have made some progress in decreasing out-of-school suspensions. During the 2012-13 school year, DCPS schools issued 8,677 out-of-school suspensions, a figure that decreased 13% from the previous school year.
However, this decrease does not show fast enough progress, given what we know about the harmful and counterproductive effects of suspension. Quantitative research has demonstrated that, even when controlling for variables like family income, teacher training, and student test scores, being excluded from school is associated with negative outcomes. All else equal, a single suspension makes a student twice as likely to repeat a grade and three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile delinquency system. This research validates common sense; a child who is out of school is less likely to be engaged in learning and more likely to get into trouble.
Some groups of students are much more likely to be exposed to these harmful effects than others. Our research has found that students attending public school in wards 7 and 8 are five times as likely to be suspended as those attending school in ward 3 and that DCPS students with special education needs are three times as likely to be suspended as their peers who are not in special education, despite legal protections that require schools to determine that the behavior being punished is not a manifestation of their disability. In short, our most disadvantaged students are also those most likely to be in schools with counterproductive disciplinary practices.
Figure 1: DCPS Schools’ SY12-13
African American Enrollment vs. Suspension Rate
The strength of the evidence concerning the harmful effects of exclusionary discipline recently led the US Department of Education and Department of Justice to issue new guidelines for school districts concerning the use of suspension, expulsion, and law enforcement. To briefly summarize the rather lengthy guidelines, the departments note the harmful and discriminatory impacts of exclusionary discipline and advise that in order to comply with federal law school districts should promote positive school climate, improve training for teachers and school personnel, clearly define and limit the role of law enforcement, ensure that discipline policies are fair and age-appropriate, engage families and school communities in policy-making, emphasize positive interventions over student removal, and utilize data to ensure continuous improvement.
Recommendations for DCPS
These guidelines bring me to my two main recommendations, which build on our local research to apply the guidelines to DCPS schools.
Provide funding for schools to implement alternatives to exclusionary discipline and initiatives that promote positive school climate.
Data suggest that most suspensions at DCPS schools are for behaviors in Tier 3 of the disciplinary code, so teachers and administrators have the discretion to implement a sanction that does not exclude the student from school. There are a variety of available alternatives to out-of-school suspension: community service, restorative conferences between the student in trouble and those who were harmed, mini-lessons on topics like anger control, and of course in-school suspension. Also, there are prevention programs designed to promote positive school climate and improve teachers’ classroom management skills.
To encourage schools to decrease their use of exclusionary discipline, the Council should support the creation of a Promoting Positive School Climate Fund. School leaders, either individually or with a partnering non-governmental organization, could apply to the fund to implement evidence-based or promising practices designed to reduce their use of disciplinary exclusions. Such a process would simultaneously promote innovation and help build local knowledge about what interventions are most effective in DC schools.
Limit the behaviors that can serve as grounds for suspension to those in which the student poses a danger to the safety of the school community.
Second, given the high number of suspensions currently occurring in DC schools, the aforementioned school engagement programs should be accompanied by rule changes that limit the use of exclusions to the most serious offenses. Unless a student’s behavior poses a clear danger to the safety of the school community, school staff should employ discipline strategies that engage and educate the student, rather than simply pushing the student out of school.
Specifically, the DCPS disciplinary code should be revised to address the overuse of suspensions for low-level misbehavior, by eliminating suspension as a permissible response for Tier 3 behavior. In addition, the code should be revised to eliminate provisions that allow for out-of-school suspension in response to persistent lower-level behavior. Finally, the code should eliminate the zero tolerance policies currently found in tiers 4 and 5, allowing educators to use alternative approaches in those cases if they see fit. The key idea is that we need to distinguish between disruptive and dangerous behavior. Only dangerous behavior justifies excluding a kid from school. Disruptive behavior is better handled with school-based approaches that address its root causes and help students learn to do better in the future.
In closing, I want to note that DCPS appears to be making progress on these issues, but our research shows that the scope of our school discipline challenge remains enormous, with thousands of District children being pushed out of the classroom each school year. Successful solutions will require a concerted effort between policymakers, school leaders, teachers, community members, and students. Finally, I want to thank the Council for its commitment to student achievement and its interest in school engagement issues. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am available to answer questions you may have.
We would also like to provide some observations concerning the truancy reduction initiatives established by the South Capitol Memorial Amendment Act and the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act. The function of a school-based student support team (SST), as defined in the South Capitol Memorial Act, is “developing and implementing action plans and strategies … to enhance the student's success with services, incentives, intervention strategies, and consequences for dealing with absenteeism.” For each student who accumulates five unexcused absences, the school is required to hold an SST meeting for the purpose of identifying root causes of the student’s truancy and developing an action plan to address those causes.
According to DCPS’s performance oversight responses, as of January 5, 2014 8,105 attendance-related SST meetings were required by this standard, and the schools held 2,902. However, only 1,100 of these resulted in identified barriers to attendance. Given that the function of the meetings is to identify and address barriers, it seems that only these 1,100 SST meetings are even potentially compliant. Dividing by the total number of cases in which SSTs were legally required, these figures indicate that DCPS has only been 14% successful in implementing the required SSTs this school year. It should also be noted that this 14% compliance rate does not at all indicate whether the action plan was in fact implemented, or whether it resulted in any improvement in the student’s attendance.
Given the sheer number of students reaching five absences and the many other demands on the time of school staff, it seems that effective implementation of the SST standards will require increased resources. One positive feature of DCPS’s implementation of the requirement is that it has declined to refer students to the Child and Family Services Agency or Court Social Services unless they have had an SST meeting. It is essential that students receive school-based interventions first and that court referral be a last resort.
Figures 1 and 2 provide a ranking of all DCPS schools that reported making court referrals during school year 2012-13 and school year 2013-14 through January 5th, 2014. The schools are ranked by the number of SST meetings held per CSS referral. During SY12-13, there were 18 schools that referred more students to CSS than the number of SST meetings held, suggesting that these schools initiated the court-involvement process without holding an SST meeting as required by the South Capitol Memorial Amendment Act of 2012. For example, Springarn High School referred 117 youth to CSS and held 0 SST meetings.
Figure 2: Schools that Made CSS Referrals,
SY12-13, By Referral per SST Meeting
The data from SY2013-14 through January 5th, 2014 do not reveal any schools that had at that point made more CSS referrals than the number of held attendance SST meetings. However, many schools are still far short of compliance with the required SST meetings. Figure 3 shows the percent compliance with holding attendance SST meetings for the 40 DCPS schools with the highest number of students with six or more unexcused absences. The compliance numbers are consistently quite low. As DCPS said in its performance oversight responses,
"[T]he reality is that staff conducting this work (SST members) have a range of other duties within the schools that make it difficult for them to dedicate their full attention to attendance work. In some of our high-truancy secondary schools, staff members could literally be expected to hold hundreds of SST meetings in order to fully comply. Under the current staffing model, it is impossible to conduct this many attendance-related SST meetings with complete fidelity."
Figure 3: Schools that Made CSS Referrals,
SY13-14 through 01/05/2014, By Referral per SST Meeting
The low SST compliance rate is troubling. However, we are pleased to see that in SY13-14, so far there are no DCPS schools that have reported more CSS referrals than SSTs. However, there are a few potential reasons the data might show this trend:
- DCPS’s practice that “[b]efore making [CSS] referrals, however, students must have had a school-based SST meeting to address their attendance and to provide support systems for the student and family;”
- the numbers reported by DCPS may only be substantiated referrals to Court Social Services; or
- the numbers reported are only referrals to date, and it is our understanding that DCPS has historically referred large batches of youth to Court Social Services at or near the end of the school year or over the course of the summer.
Regardless of the reason, DC Lawyers for Youth supports the practice of not referring students to court unless school staff have held a meaningful SST meeting and implemented the SST action plan required in the South Capitol Memorial Act. Based on the data, it is clear that there is currently a bottleneck in the anti-truancy process due to DCPS’s inability to hold the required SST meetings. Addressing this bottleneck should be a funding priority for FY2015.
Figure 4: Percent SST Compliance for the 40 DCPS Schools
with the Most Required SST Meetings
 Grounds for Disciplinary Action, 5-B DCMR § 2502, 2009, http://www.dcregs.dc.gov/Gateway/RuleHome.aspx?RuleNumber=5-B2502.
 “New Joint Report Outlines Academic and Discipline Trends in DC’s Public Schools,” DC Public Schools, Washington, DC, accessed February 12, 2014, http://dcps.dc.gov/DCPS/About+DCPS/Press+Releases+and+Announcements/Press+Releases/New+Joint+Report+Outlines+Academic+and+Discipline+Trends+in+Public+Schools+in+DC.
 Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY12-13 (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2013).
 Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY11-12 (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2012). During SY11-12 DCPS schools issued 9,966 out-of-school suspensions.
 Tony Fabelo et al., Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement (Council of States Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University, July 2011), http://justicecenter.csg.org/files/Breaking_Schools_Rules_Report_Final.pdf.
 Alex Peerman and Eduardo Ferrer, District Discipline: The Overuse of Suspension and Expulsion in the District of Columbia (DC Lawyers for Youth, June 20, 2013), http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/dcly/pages/64/attachments/original/1371689930/District_Discipline_Report.pdf?1371689930.
 Equity Reports Discipline Data (DC Public Schools and DC Public Charter School Board, 2013), https://data.dcpcsb.org/dataset/Equity-Reports-Discipline/bcuw-6bng. Data analysis by author.
 US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline,” January 8, 2014, http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201401-title-vi.pdf; Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (US Department of Education, January 2014), http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/guiding-principles.pdf.
 Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY12-13. Note that the format of these data do not make it possible to precisely tabulate how many suspensions are issued for each offense. Instead, the SBT reports the three most common reasons for suspension at each school.
 “Policy Alternatives,” Dignity in Schools, n.d., http://www.dignityinschools.org/policy-alternatives.
 David Catania, South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012, 2012, 3, http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/lims/legislation.aspx?LegNo=B19-0211&Description=%22SOUTH+CAPITOL+STREET+MEMORIAL+AMENDMENT+ACT+OF+2012%22.+&ID=25980.
 DC Public Schools Performance Oversight Responses Q70 Attachment_CFSA_CSS_SST SY12-13 & SY13-14 (DC Public Schools, 2014).
 DC Public Schools FY2013 Performance Oversight Responses (DC Public Schools, 2014), 88.
 DC Public Schools Performance Oversight Responses Q70 Attachment_Unexcused Absences SY11-12, SY12-13 & SY13-14 (DC Public Schools, 2014).