Committee on Education, Budget Oversight Hearing for DC Public School

Testimony of Edgar Cahn, Steering Committee Member, Every Student Every Day Coalition

Good morning Chairman Catania, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Edgar Cahn.* I am a member of the Steering Committee for the Every Student Every Day Coalition and testifying on its behalf. The Coalition is a group of advocacy organizations, researchers, service providers, and individuals engaged in a variety of issue areas, including education, juvenile justice, child welfare, youth empowerment, special education, and civil rights. We came together around a vision of a public education system in which every child is in school every day, gaining the skills necessary to become a successful adult.

To achieve that vision, we believe that the District must create a specific restricted Fund to implement evidence-based or promising practices that provide alternatives to present reliance on disciplinary exclusions. Schools will need funds dedicated to the development of policies, practices and programs that enhance school engagement, promote student achievement, and decrease the District’s use of suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrest.

The Harmful Effects of Disciplinary Exclusions

Quantitative research has demonstrated that, even when controlling for variables like family income, teacher training, and student test scores, being excluded from school – by suspension, expulsion -- is associated with negative outcomes, including grade retention and involvement in the juvenile delinquency system. 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 than a student who has not been suspended.1 This research validates the common sense notion that 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 the harmful effects disciplinary exclusions than others. Our research has found a strong correlation between DC wards’ child poverty rates and their school suspension rates.2 Also, DCPS students with special education needs are three times as likely to be suspended as their peers who are not in special education.3 In short, our most disadvantaged students are also those most likely to be in schools with counterproductive disciplinary practices.


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 that suggest schools “use data and analysis to continuously improve and ensure fairness and equity for all students.”5 The practice of disproportionally suspending and excluding our most vulnerable students runs counter to these guidelines.

Current DCPS Practice

During the 2012-13 school year, DCPS schools issued 8,677 out-of-school suspensions,6 approximately 48 suspensions each instructional day.7 Over the course of the year, 12% of DCPS students were suspended at least once. Suspension rates are 
far higher at certain middle and high schools. At Hart Middle School, 63% of students were suspended at least once; 60% at J.H. Johnson Middle School; 58% at Ballou Senior

High School; 48% at Cardozo Senior High School.8 The list could go on. While the District is desperately trying to convince struggling students and their families of the importance of attending school every day and earning a high school diploma, some schools are sending the opposite message: we do not want you here.

Many of these suspensions are issued for vague reasons rather than the serious and dangerous behaviors that one might expect. Of the top five highest-suspending schools,9 every single one indicated that “causing disruption” was the most common reason for issuing a suspension. The second and third most common behaviors resulting in suspension at these schools included fighting that caused no injury, leaving school without permission, “reckless behavior,” and tobacco possession.10 If we want to impress upon students the importance of learning, we must not be so quick to suspend for these behaviors and instead increase our use of in-school consequences that hold students accountable while keeping them engaged in school.

Disciplinary exclusions are not only harmful to students; they are also ineffective in promoting behavior change. Last school year, 74% of all DCPS suspensions were given to students that received more than one suspension.11 This confirms that in DC schools, as demonstrated by research elsewhere, disciplinary exclusions are not effective punishments that put students on a path to better behavior, but outdated and ineffective approaches that disengage students from school, promote further disruptive behavior, and place students on a path to school failure.

Funding Proposals for Fiscal Year 2015

Let me now turn to the impact these findings should have on school budgeting. The implementation of effective alternatives to suspension and expulsion will require resources for new programs and staff training that empowers teachers to effectively manage their classrooms and promote positive school climates. 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.12

To encourage the utilization of alternatives, the Council should create a Promoting Positive School Climate Fund. School leaders 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. For example, school leaders might use the funds to hire a restorative practices coordinator, secure technical assistance in the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program, or better collect and utilize data on exclusion patterns in their schools.


In closing, I want to note that DCPS appears to be making progress on these issues, as indicated by the fact that out-of-school suspensions decreased last year. 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. Most pertinent to today’s hearing, it will require a targeted investment in effective disciplinary alternatives.

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.


*Distinguished Professor of Law, UDC David A. Clarke School of Law; Founder, Racial Justice Initiative, TimeBanks USA; Founder, Time Dollar Youth Court; AshokaFellow; CEO. TimeBanks USA; Co-Founder, Antioch School of Law; previously, Special Assistant to Sargent Shriver, Office of Economic Opportunity; Special Counsel to Attorney General Robert Kennedy

1 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),

2 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), 9, 71689930/District_Di scipline_Report.pdf?1371689930.

3 Ibid., 7.

4 Ibid., 9.

5 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,; Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (US Department of Education, January 2014),

6 Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY12-13 (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2013).

7 Based on an estimated 180 instructional days.

Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY12-13.

9 Hart MS, Ballou SHS, Cardozo SHS, Anacostia SHS, and Eastern SHS.

10 Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY12-13.

11 Ibid.

12 “Policy Alternatives,” Dignity in Schools, n.d.,

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