Public Hearing before the Committee on Education on the FY2018 Budget of DC Public Schools

Testimony of Emily Feldhake
Policy & Advocacy Associate, DC Lawyers for Youth
Public Hearing before the Committee on Education on
     The Budget for the District of Columbia Public Schools
Thursday April 27, 2017
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

            Good morning Chairman Grosso, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Emily Feldhake and I am the Policy and Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth. DCLY is a research, advocacy, and direct service action tank that seeks to improve DC’s juvenile justice system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

            As advocates for youth, we want the best outcomes for DC kids, and we know that the path to productive adulthood starts with being engaged and successful in school. We know that many young people in the District of Columbia come into schools with prior trauma, which if unaddressed, can stand in the way of their education.[1]  We too often see this trauma contributing to suspensions, expulsions, truancy, or even arrests.

            My testimony today will focus on two complementary recommendations related to DCPS’s budget: First, we recommend that the District create and fund a separate $10 million[2] school engagement fund in order to scale up the District’s investment in restorative justice as well as truancy prevention and intervention.  Second, we recommend that the District increase its allocation for school social workers from approximately $17 million to $21 million dollars to match the District’s spending on school security officers. 

1.     DCPS should create a $10 million school engagement fund to help students stay in the classroom

             DCPS continues to rely too much on exclusionary discipline, and our kids bear the impact of this decision. Even as the most recent OSSE State of School Discipline Report for the 2015-2016 school year showed overall decreases in suspensions, there remains persistent and troubling disparities by special education status, foster care status, race and geography. Starting as early as kindergarten, many of our kids are being sent the message that they are not welcome in our schools. According to the OSSE report, there were 2,430 individual elementary school students suspended in 2015-2016.

             The District’s discipline code currently allows for students to be suspended for the vague and highly subjective category of “disrespect, insubordination, and disruption.” In the 2015-2016 school year, this category alone was the reason behind at least 2,460 disciplinary actions. [3] Among what was reported, there was also 264 disciplinary actions for “attendance, skipping and tardy.”  Pushing kids out for missing school is counterproductive and does nothing towards the goal of getting our kids into the classroom. Suspensions and disengagement are highly correlated. More than 42% of students who were suspended in 2015-2016 were truant, compared to 19% of students without a disciplinary action. Disciplining problems by handing down punitive suspensions only makes the problem worse, and does nothing to address root causes.

            The data itself shows room for improvement, but we know that the data reported does not provide the full experience of our coalition members. This experience shows us that school push out does not happen only through formal suspensions and expulsions. Some of our kids are subject to informal exclusionary practices that include sending students home without issuing formal notices of suspension, using do-not-admit-lists, locking their doors after the first bell rings, or requiring students to return to school with a parent before they are allowed to be readmitted. We need to be vigilant about the fidelity of how discipline data is tracked and reported within all our schools.

            Schools that have begun to invest more heavily in restorative justice practices have seen promising outcomes. Schools like Ballou, which garnered media attention for its restorative justice approach that preceded a drastic reduction in suspensions, should no longer be an exceptional case.  In budget oversight answers, DCPS states that they are focused on expanding restorative practices to high school feeder programs to ensure vertical alignment and grounding of the approach. In order to sustain and build these efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions for all students, the District needs to direct additional money to a student support fund that can bolster and scale up restorative justice programming, so that DCPS can effectively scale these efforts without having to demand more from its already taxed teachers and staff.

            The approach DCPS takes toward truancy continues to prioritize enforcement over meaningful intervention. In the 2015-2016 school year, 23% of all DCPS students had more than 10 unexcused absences, and 13% had more than 20 unexcused absences.[4]  This number was even higher for students in special education: 27% of students in special education had more than 10 unexcused absences.[5] Looking specifically at 6th through 8th grade students in DCPS schools, in the 2015-2016 school year 39% had 10 or more unexcused absences, and this number has increased by 2% from the previous year.[6]

            Despite these high levels of unexcused absences, DCPS continues to fall short in meaningfully intervening with students who are struggling to attend school.  For instance, schools are required to hold school-based support teams (SSTs) after a student accrues five unexcused absences. SSTs were established to help reduce truancy by identifying root causes early and developing individualized action plans.  During the 2015-2016 school year, there were 19,050 students referred to school-based support teams (SSTs) for attendance, but only 12,944 (68%) attendance SSTs were held.[7] Moreover, DCPS did not state how many (or what percentage) of the SSTs resulted in identifying barriers to attendance as they had in years past[8], or how many resulted in action plans that were implemented.  Based on our experience working with youth in the District, even when attendance SSTs are being “held,” they are pro forma ineffective meetings or phone calls merely meant to check the box of the requirement that the meeting be held, rather than meaningfully intervene in the truant behavior.  Let me be clear.  We do not think this is the result of any lack of desire to meaningfully comply with the law or to cut corners; rather, the lack of meaningful SSTS is the result of the fact that DCPS was never provided with the resources necessary to actually comply with the SST requirement in the first place. 

            Importantly, while DCPS only provided a narrative regarding the root causes as opposed to data, DCPS identified the root causes of attendance issues in their performance oversight response in the following manner: “In general, students listed academic concerns, health, family issues, clothing, day care, ‘parentified’ minors and executive life management issues, and transportation as the most persistent barriers to their regular school attendance.” These barriers that students face are not barriers to be solved in court. Not only are these are barriers that should be resolved through SST meetings and action plans, they are also barriers that are likely to be compounded, not alleviated, through court involvement. 

            Nevertheless, at the same time that the schools are failing to meaningfully intervene directly in truancy, they are still referring youth to CFSA and to court on a broad scale.  DCPS acknowledges in their budget oversight answers that keeping kids in the classroom is a complex issue, and they also state that their plan is to provide support and intervention to not only truant, but also chronically absent students. It is obvious from the negative attendance trends that the status quo is not working. Without investing targeted resources to improving in-seat attendance, we continue to pay the costs of lost learning days.

            This is not to say that DCPS is not doing good work to intervene to improve attendance. In its Performance Oversight Answers, DCPS stated that two of its main strategies for reducing truancy are improving school climate and reducing out-of-school suspensions.  We are there are fully supportive of both approaches.  We are also optimistic regarding a number of the specific initiatives and programming already in place in many of the schools, including Access Youth, PASS, and Show Up, Stand Out.  Indeed, DCPS needs to continue to scale up what is working and suspend what is not working. Money invested into a school engagement fund will provide money that can only be used to scale up truancy intervention programs (exclusive of court referral) so that we can provide positive intervention for all our kids. We know that meaningful investment in reducing truancy means addressing the root causes of truancy and the barriers our kids face.

            We recognize that the creation of a $10 million fund to improve school attendance by reducing truancy and school exclusion seems like a large ask, especially considering the host of other critical needs that are going unfunded or underfunded. However, it is an investment in our youth that should more than pay for itself.  This year, the University of California released a study showing a clear connection between suspensions and lower graduation rates, and the resulting lower tax revenue and higher tax payer costs for criminal justice and social services.[9]  In the study, dropouts that stemmed from suspensions in a single cohort of 10th grade students in the state led to a $2.7 billion loss for California taxpayers over their lifetime. The study found that just one non-graduate generates a $579,820 economic loss.[10]   The cost of truancy is similarly high, because of the strong correlation between truancy and high school dropout. In one study on truancy that looked at potential decreases in tax revenues, consumption of social services, utilization of the justice system, and other costs, it estimated the total cost associated with the average high school dropout is more than $800,000 during that young person’s lifetime.[11]

 2.     For the FY2018 budget, we recommend that DCPS spend at least as much on social workers for schools as they spend on security guards, with the goal of shifting a significant amount spent on security to social work over time.

            During the 2015-2016 school year, the ratio of security staff in schools was 1:114 while the ratio of social workers was 1:283 students.[12] Based on allocations for 2017, the ratio of security staff in schools will be 1:112, while the ratio of social workers is 1:278 students.[13]  What message does it send our kids when they are more likely to come across a police officer or security guard in a school than a social worker? This disparity shows a relative lack of investment in the socio-emotional needs of our students that is very concerning, and must be remedied as soon as possible.  

             The National Association of School Social Workers recommends that schools follow a social worker to student ratio of 1:250.[14]  However, “[w]hen a school social worker is providing services to students with intensive needs, a lower ratio, such as 1:50, is suggested.”[15] DCPS not only falls short of the standard for social workers working with student populations of average need, but also falls significantly short of meeting the recommendation for students with intensive needs – a ratio that is more likely to apply to the majority of DC public schools.[16]  

             In the FY2017 school submitted budgets, DCPS will spend an estimated total of $16.8 million across all schools on social workers.[17] In performance oversight answers, DCPS estimates it will spend over $21 million on school security personnel.[18] This differential is even more surprising given that according to DCPS, the estimated reimbursement of spending on mental health personnel by Medicaid is 55%. [19] That means after reimbursement, spending on school social workers is well under half of what is spent on school security personnel.

             Indeed, when you look at some of our highest need schools, the reality of the disparity between investing in our youth versus policing our youth becomes even more stark.  For instance, this school year Moten Elementary School, located in Ward 8 enrolled 423 students, 100 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced school lunch. There is only one school social worker at Moten, and two security guards. There was a similar scenario at Randle Highlands Elementary School in Ward 7, which has a half-time social worker for the 339 students who attend it. Stanton Elementary School in Ward 8 is another example. At Stanton, there are 2 security guards but just one social worker for the 513 students who attend.[20] These schools are just a few examples of DCPS schools that exceed the 1:250 national standard of school social worker to student ratio.  

            School social workers are an important lifeline for students and families. In the 2015-2016 school year, 20 DCPS schools did not have a full-time social worker and in the 2016-2017 school year at least 15 DCPS schools remain without a full time social worker. DCPS describes the primary responsibility of a social worker as “preventive work with students, staff, and families that promotes positive school climate and social/emotional well-being.”[21] The preventative work to address student need and trauma early and attend to their mental health and socio-emotional needs provides the foundation for our kids to learn while they are in the classroom. In their role as a home-school-community liaison, social workers are critical to leveraging the resources that may already exist in a student’s life and helping to coordinate these services. Full time school social workers have the ability to be additional consistent, safe, and helpful adults in the lives of our students.

            As DCPS invests in restorative justice practices and truancy reduction initiatives, emphasizes trauma-informed school climates, and further learns about the individual obstacles impeding a student’s ability to learn, the need for additional social workers, who can intervene and connect youth with services to mitigate the obstacles, will become ever more apparent. We know that the underlying root causes for many of our kids struggling in the classroom, or not attending school, are obstacles they are facing in their homes or communities. These issues cannot be addressed in the school through teachers alone, whose time, energy, and focus is already heavily taxed.  Schools need personnel whose dedicated role is to support and invest in the health and welfare of our students.

            We are hopeful about the progress that DCPS has made in recognizing and addressing student trauma, as is evidenced by their restorative justice pilot programs and their efforts to reduce the overuse of exclusionary discipline. To stay consistent in prioritizing our students’ socio-emotional needs, DCPS needs to invest in school staff who can be a consistent and supportive presence in our kids’ lives, helping our kids manage everything they carry into the classroom with them each day.

            Investment in restorative justice involves more than just investment in initial training and staff support, but also in personnel. Schools need personnel whose dedicated role is to support and invest in the health and welfare of our students. Preventative work to address student need and trauma early, and attend to their mental health and socio-emotional needs, will provide the foundation for our kids to learn while they are in the classroom.


            Our two recommendations, that DCPS create a school engagement fund to scale up restorative justice programming and truancy intervention, and that DCPS fund school social work positions equal to how they fund school security personnel, are both ways to work to address the root causes of school disengagement for our kids. Too often in the District, the barriers and obstacles our kids face are created by, or made worse, by adults. The failure of schools to reduce their use of exclusionary discipline and continued court referrals for truancy are examples of this. By creating a $10 million school engagement fund, and by hiring as many social workers as school security, DCPS can make meaningful investments in keeping all our students in the classroom. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

[1] See Addressing Childhood Trauma a report by Children’s Law Center available at

[2] A $10 million fund would provide approximately $87,000 to each of DCPS’s 115 schools for the exclusive purpose of adding or improving its restorative justice and truancy interventions. 

[3] A breakdown of the number of students per grade who are suspended is found on page 28 of the discipline report. According to graph, students in grades 5 and below make up 33% of all students suspended.

[4] See Q53_Attachment submitted by DCPS with the 2016 Performance Oversight responses, supra 2. There were 11,348 students who were in the 11-20 unexcused absences or 21+ unexcused absences range out of the 49,550 students enrolled.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] See Q 55 page 69 of the 2016 DCPS Performance Oversight responses, supra 2.

[8] For an example of a more informative account of SSTs, see Q 87 on page 70 of the 2013 DCPS Oversight. responses accessed at:

[10] The total $2.7 billion loss results from $809 million in direct costs to taxpayers for dropouts' use of the criminal justice system and paying fewer taxes and another $1.9 billion in social costs, such as decreased productivity in the workforce and higher health care expenses.

[11] The High Cost of Truancy by Farah Z. Ahmad and Tiffany Miller, Center for American Progress, published August 2015.

[12] The Performance Oversight responses from DCPS state that in 2015-2016 SY there were 171 school social workers in DCPS schools. See attachment Q11 referenced on page 17 of the online document:  The responses report in Q7 on page 7 that for the 2015-2016 SY there were 103 MPD officers, 28 special police officers and 292 contracted security guards in DCPS schools. The enrollment number used is 48,439 provided at  Even if you include the 39.5 DBH staff now located in schools, the ratio of social worker to student is 1:230. In other words, there are still twice as many security officers as social workers in the schools.

[13] These ratios use the answers from DCPS (supra note 10) for MPD personnel and the DCPS initial budget allocations for FY17 and enrollment projections

[15] Id

[16] Consider that in terms of the percent of students nationally who qualify for subsidized school lunch is 48.1% while 73% of DCPS students qualify for subsidized lunch.

[17] Summing the submitted budget for the amount each DCPS school reports budgeting for social workers for FY17, which was accessed at , totals to $16,942,000.

[18] See Q8 of DCPS performance oversight answers where the projection for the MPD contract for the 2016-2017 school year is made:

[19] See Q11 on page 17 of the DCPS performance oversight answers, supra note 14.

[20] The school personnel numbers are based on staffing during the 15-16 school year.

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