Committee on Education, Hearing on Bill 21-0001 and Student Discipline Practices and Procedures in Public Schools

Testimony of Alex Peerman, Policy and Advocacy Associate

Good afternoon Chairman Grosso and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Alex Peerman, and I am a Policy and Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service organization that seeks to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.

I testify today on behalf of the Every Student, Every Day Coalition, a group of organizations and individuals that advocate for policies and programs that increase school attendance, enhance school engagement, promote student achievement, and decrease the District’s reliance on suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrest. We support the proposed Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act of 2015, and also urge that this Committee take up more comprehensive school discipline reform that would protect older students.

The proposed bill would shield pre-K students from ineffective discipline.

The benefits of prohibiting out-of-school suspensions for pre-K students are clear. The main goal of early childhood education is to promote the skills and behaviors that make young children likely to succeed in kindergarten,[1] including both basic academic skills like reciting the alphabet, and socio-emotional skills like the ability to follow rules and work with their peers.[2] Lost class time from suspension and expulsion undermines efforts to teach these skills and behaviors. Of course, the same is true of students at any age – lost class time impedes learning. What makes suspensions of pre-K students especially problematic is that they are sometimes imposed for behavior that is normal for students of that age, like having a temper tantrum or being unable to control bowel and bladder functions.[3]

The Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act would effectively create a common-sense rule, that pre-K students cannot be excluded from school unless their behavior poses a genuine danger to students or staff. Such a law would decrease the number of young children suspended, increase their engagement with school, and promote long-term student achievement. For these reasons, the Every Student Every Day Coalition supports this bill.

Some small changes should be made to the definitions in the bill to increase the likelihood that pre-K educators use developmentally appropriate disciplinary responses.

The definition of “suspension” proposed in the bill is too broad, and should be replaced with a definition more consistent with existing law and regulation. The bill as introduced defines “suspension” as “the removal of a student from class attendance or school attendance for a specified period of time.”[4] This definition does not indicate whether the removal must be for a disciplinary reason, and on its face it seems to cover any removal of a student from class for any reason. With this definition, the legislation might be construed to prevent, for example, taking an inconsolable child out of class to see a counselor. Sometimes such removals from class serve the best interests of the student, and the legislation should be more clearly written to allow non-punitive removals.

In order to address this concern, the definition should be revised to make clear that it covers removals from school, and not removals from class during which additional assistance or instruction is being provided. For example, the DCPS definition of “suspension” is “the denial of the right of a student to attend any DCPS school or program, including all classes and school activities, except in an approved Alternative Educational Setting, in no event exceeding ninety (90) school days pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.”[5] A similar definition, if employed in this legislation, would prevent out-of-school suspensions for pre-K students, while allowing schools the discretion to employ non-punitive classroom removals when they find them appropriate.

The data collection provisions should be strengthened to give policy-makers a more complete picture of discipline in the District.

Also, the data collection provisions of the legislation should be strengthened. The current legislation would collect only information about the number of students suspended.[6] Another critical piece of information would be the number of suspensions, because it more accurately captures lost instructional time for students who were suspended more than once. This turns out to be a surprisingly important distinction, because many students are suspended repeatedly. For example in SY12-13, DCPS issued 10,446 suspensions, but only suspended 5,509 students.[7] The difference arises because 74% of suspensions were given to students with more than one suspension during the year.[8]

Not only does this suggest that suspensions are ineffective at creating positive behavior change, it shows that in order to get a full picture of the harm caused by exclusionary discipline, policy-makers need to have access to information about the number of suspensions, in addition to the number of students suspended.

For similar reasons, the bill should require LEAs to provide a more granular breakdown of suspension lengths than simply 1-10 days and more than 10 days. From a research perspective, the ideal system would involve reporting of each individual suspension and its length. If this is unduly burdensome administratively, increasing the number of reporting bins would still be valuable, for example to 1-3 days, 4-6 days, 7-9 days, and 10+ days. This would allow for fuller understanding of how exclusions are being used in schools.

Finally, the bill should require not only a narrative description of the types of behaviors that led to the suspensions, but also a quantitative report. Ideally, each LEA would provide tallies for the same set of categories. However, this may be unworkable given the diversity in disciplinary codes among charter LEAs. The Office of the State Superintendent for Education should investigate this matter and come up with an implementation solution that gives policy-makers, parents, and the public adequate information about suspension patterns in different schools.

Only a small fraction of the District’s suspensions and expulsions are of pre-K students.

We also want to use this hearing to draw attention to broader improvements that the Committee can make to school discipline policy in the District. In data analyzed by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, suspensions of pre-K students accounted for less than 2% of total suspensions in the District. That means that this bill leaves 98% of the problem unaddressed.[9]

School exclusions of older students also harm them and their peers.

In fact, most of the research on the negative effects of school exclusions has been done with older students. The largest study to date on school discipline found that suspending a middle school student just once makes that student two times as likely to have to repeat a grade and three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year.[10] Also, a recently-published study shows that the negative effects of suspension do not just fall on the students who are pushed out, but that high rates of exclusionary discipline harm the school’s educational environment for all students. This study found that, other things being equal, students who were not themselves suspended, but who attended schools with high rates of suspension had lower scores on math and reading tests.[11]

The evidence clearly demonstrates that high rates of suspension and expulsion increase the risk of academic failure and delinquency among suspended students, and decrease the educational achievement of their non-suspended peers. All of the research finding these effects was conducted with middle- and high-school students.

The racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and special education disparities in suspension rates make this a social justice issue.

National research also shows that students of color and students receiving special education services are disproportionately likely to be excluded from school for disciplinary reasons.[12] Low-income students, too, are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions.[13] However, even after controlling for poverty and rates of misbehavior, studies consistently find large and statistically significant racial and ethnic disparities in exclusionary discipline.[14] This research shows that the disproportionate use of suspension and expulsion is not fully explained by different rates of misbehavior. Rather, the same rules are being applied differently to students of different races.

This injustice happens every day in DC schools. Councilmember Grosso called for an excellent report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education,[15] which found that black students were almost six times more likely to be excluded from school than white students.[16] Again, this was after controlling for free or reduced lunch status and other variables like child welfare involvement and homelessness.[17] Similarly, Latino students were twice as likely to be excluded as white students.[18] Students receiving level 2 special education services were 1.75 times as likely to be suspended as students receiving no special education services.[19] Students identified as emotionally disturbed were almost three times as likely to be suspended as students with no identified disability.[20] And direct-certified free or reduced lunch students were 1.50 times as likely to be suspended as students not receiving free or reduced lunch.[21]

These disparities are large and deeply unfair. They make it harder for minority, poor, and special education students to succeed in school. They make it harder for these groups to stay on track to college and a career. National research suggests that these disparities are especially large not for clearly-defined offenses like bringing a gun or drugs to school, but for subjective offenses like disruption and disrespect.[22] Every day that we fail to address these issues delays social justice in our schools.

The Committee should prohibit pre-K suspensions, but also work towards comprehensive school discipline reform.

Because we know that suspensions hurt schools and the kids who attend them, the Coalition recommends that the Education Committee pass the substance of the bill under discussion today. However, we also urge that the Committee either make amendments to the bill or otherwise craft legislation that would address the overuse of school exclusions against older students, who in fact receive the vast majority of suspensions and expulsions.

Our Coalition has published a policy platform[23] that would serve as an ideal starting point for such legislation. At its core is a two-part strategy, in which the Council would set minimum standards for discipline to reduce the number of exclusions, while simultaneously providing more funding and technical assistance for alternatives like restorative justice, classroom management training, and counseling. This core approach would be accompanied by support activities like better data reporting, goal-setting, and increased community involvement. Implementing such legislation would increase the academic gains of the District’s students, increase graduation rates, and decrease juvenile and criminal justice system costs.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Committee and Chairman Grosso in particular for bringing attention to this issue. Your commitment to stopping the school-to-prison pipeline gives members of our Coalition more hope than we have had in recent memory that positive change will come for the youth we serve.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I welcome any questions.



[1] Walter S. Gilliam, “What Could Make Less Sense than Expelling a Preschooler?,” Psychology Benefits Society, December 13, 2014, http://psychologybenefits.org/2014/12/13/preschool-expulsions/.

[2] Mary Ann Rafoth et al., School Readiness—Preparing Children for Kindergarten and Beyond: Information for Parents (National Association of School Psychologists, n.d.), http://www.nasponline.org/resources/handouts/schoolreadiness.pdf.

[3] Reducing Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Public and Public Charter Schools (Office of the State Superintendent of Education, June 2014), 19, http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/OSSE_REPORT_DISCIPLINARY_G_PAGES.pdf.

[4] David Grosso et al., Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act of 2015, 2015, 2, http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/33194/B21-0001-Introduction.pdf.

[5] DC Mun. Regs. tit. 5B, § 2599.2 (2009)

[6] David Grosso et al., Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act of 2015, 3.

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Reducing Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Public and Public Charter Schools, 23.

[10] 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), xi–xii, http://justicecenter.csg.org/files/Breaking_Schools_Rules_Report_Final.pdf.

[11] Brea L. Perry and Edward W. Morris, “Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools,” American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 (2014): 1067–87.

[12] Prudence Carter, Michelle Fine, and Stephen Russell, Discipline Disparities Series: Overview (The Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, March 2014), 1, http://www.indiana.edu/~atlantic/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Disparity_Overview_040414.pdf.

[13] Russell J. Skiba and Natasha T. Williams, Are Black Kids Worse? Myths and Facts About Racial Differences in Behavior: A Summary of the Literature (The Equity Project at Indiana University, March 2014), 2, http://www.indiana.edu/~atlantic/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/African-American-Differential-Behavior_031214.pdf.

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] See David A. Catania et al., Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013, 2013, http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/images/00001/20130614130043.pdf.

[16] Reducing Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Public and Public Charter Schools, 12.

[17] Ibid., 10.

[18] Ibid., 12.

[19] Ibid., 14.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 12.

[22] Russell J. Skiba and Natasha T. Williams, Are Black Kids Worse? Myths and Facts About Racial Differences in Behavior: A Summary of the Literature, 3–4.

[23] Policy Platform: Recommendations for Improving School Engagement (The Every Student Every Day Coalition, May 2013), http://www.dcly.org/esed_policy_platform.


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