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 the Public Charter School Board.
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 productive adulthood. My testimony today will focus on the current use of suspension in PCSB schools, the negative impact of those suspensions, and steps that the Council could take to help PCSB schools decrease their use of these practices.
PCSB and Student Discipline Data
We commend PCSB 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. Based on its responses to the Committee’s questions, it seems that PCSB has been extremely effective at requiring schools to track disciplinary data and providing tools for them to interpret it.
The Equity Reports could be improved in four key ways: 1) reporting the number of suspensions at each school in addition to the number of students suspended, 2) reporting a more granular breakdown of suspension lengths than simply 1+ days and 11+ days, 3) providing information on the behaviors for which exclusions were issued and 4) adding information on in-school law enforcement activity such as arrests. These changes would provide stakeholders with a more complete picture of schools’ level of success in student discipline.
PCSB Expulsion Rates and Suspension Rates
The available data help us understand how PCSB schools are using exclusionary discipline. We are very pleased that the public charter schools have decreased the sector’s expulsion rate by 27%. The data on suspensions are less encouraging, however. During the last school year, 15% of PCSB students were suspended at least once, an increase in the rate from the 2011-12 school year. In middle schools, the rate was 29%, meaning about one of every three students was suspended during the 12-13 school year.
This trend is concerning, 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. Students attending public school in wards seven and eight are five times as likely to be suspended as those attending school in ward three and PCSB students in special education were suspended at 2.3 times the rate of students not in special education. 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. In the guidance package, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that exclusionary discipline “can erode trust between students and school staff, and undermine efforts to create the positive school climates needed to engage students in a well-rounded and rigorous curriculum.”
DC Lawyers for Youth believes that suspensions harm not only the students pushed out, but also their classmates. Nearly all suspensions in the District are for under ten days, meaning that suspended students return to their regular classroom. When they return, they are farther behind in class and nothing has been done to address the root causes of their disruptive behavior. As a result, students returning from suspension require increased teacher attention to help them catch up, and they may continue to struggle with impulse control or interpersonal skills in the classroom environment. Quantitative research has found that even after controlling for demographic factors, schools with higher suspension rates show lower student achievement on assessments. These findings indicate that suspension is an ineffective tool for promoting orderly and productive learning environments.
Recommendations for PCSB
We have two recommendations for the Council as it conducts oversight of PCSB in the coming year. First, PCSB should be encouraged to issue a model school discipline code and offer technical support to schools in implementing the federal discipline guidance. Second, the Council should create a grant-based fund that school leaders could apply to for the purpose of funding programs that promote positive school climate.
In closing, I want again to note our approval of PCSB’s data collection policies and analysis tools and to commend charter schools for decreasing their expulsion rates. 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, and I welcome any questions.
 “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.
 Fiscal Year 2013 Performance Oversight Response (Public Charter School Board, 2014), 33–34, http://dccouncil.us/files/performance_oversight/PCSB_FY13PerformanceOversightHearingResponse___FINAL.pdf.
 DC Public Charter School Board SY 2012-2013 Discipline Data (DC Public Charter School Board, September 10, 2013), 3, http://www.livebinders.com/media/get/NjI3MzgyMg==.
 Fiscal Year 2013 Performance Oversight Response, Question 53.
 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.
 Fiscal Year 2013 Performance Oversight Response, Question 53.
 Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 2014), ii.
 Russell Skiba et al., Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations (American Psychological Association Zero Toleran ce Task Force, August 9, 2006), 5, https://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance-report.pdf.