Each year, thousands of the District of Columbia’s most vulnerable children are pushed out of schools and deprived of their right to an education. Advocates for Justice and Education, Inc. (AJE) pushes back against school pushout in DC every day by informing the public about the laws governing public education, empowering parents and youth to self-advocate, and providing direct services, primarily in the areas of special education and school discipline. AJE helped form the Every Student Every Day Coalition as part of our ongoing effort to disrupt the school to prison pipeline in DC and protect students’ rights to an appropriate public education.
DC has two public school systems—traditional public schools (DCPS) and public charter schools (DCPCS). DCPS and public charter schools reported suspending 12% of their students at least once during the 2012-13 school year, with certain schools suspending their students at rates far higher than the District average. Charter schools reported expelling 186 students during 2012-2013 and 139 students last school year. A recent report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, showed how African-American students in DC are nearly six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. The report also found that students from low-income families, students who are homeless, students under the care of DC’s child welfare system, and students who receive special education services, were more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers. With the graduation rates among the lowest in the nation and approximately 90,000 adults who are functionally illiterate, shouldn’t DC be fighting to keep our kids in schools as opposed to pushing them out?
High rates of suspensions and expulsions demonstrate the failures of our schools, not our youth. Unfortunately, schools are sending families the opposite message and not being held accountable for routinely denying them the supports and due process they are entitled to. Last year, AJE took in over 160 new calls from DC parents and youth seeking assistance with suspensions and expulsions. Since September, AJE has received nearly 50 calls about school discipline, including calls from parents who tell us that their pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners are being suspended and expelled.
As a staff attorney at AJE, part of my job is to advise and represent the parents of youth suspended and expelled from school. Since the start of the 2014-15 school year AJE has already counseled more than 35 students facing suspensions and 11 students facing expulsions. One child I assisted this year is 13 years old and receives special education services at a DCPS middle school. His school suspended him seven times in three months, and then took more than one month to find him a new school after his special education team determined that the school he was in could not meet his needs. This child has missed more school days than he has been present due to suspensions.
So far this year I have worked directly on three expulsion cases, involving children ages 5, 10, and 12. During the expulsion appeal hearing of the 5-year-old child I represented, while the adults spoke he watched a Power Rangers movie on his mother’s laptop because even the school CEO holding the hearing acknowledged he was too young to participate or understand what was going on. At least we were in complete agreement on that part.
Both the 5 and 10-year-old children facing expulsions were enrolled at the same public charter school. Although both of their parents had asked the school, before an expulsion was ever proposed, to evaluate whether their children had disabilities impacting their behavior at school, the school refused to evaluate them or provide them with the additional protections children with suspected disabilities are legally entitled to. According to available data, this charter school reported suspending 58% of its students receiving special education services during the 2012-13 SY even though those students were only 18% of total enrolled students.
Because the school had not evaluated or formally identified these children as having disabilities at the time of their suspensions, they will likely not be reported by the school as suspensions of students who receive special education services, even if they wind up qualifying for them later.
The 12-year-old child faced expulsion for bringing a pocket knife into school one week after she was violently assaulted on her way home from school by a group of students who had bullied and harassed her for months. Although she told her mom, and her mom reported these incidents each time they occurred to both the school and police, school staff did nothing to prevent or address the threats, harassment and violence she faced every day at school and on the way to and from school. That is, nothing was done until a teacher noticed a pocket knife fall out of her pocket onto the classroom floor one day and she was swiftly expelled under the school’s “zero tolerance” policy. Ultimately, after AJE intervened, the charter school decided to involuntarily transfer her to another campus. Today, this 12-year-old still faces daily threats from the same children who live in her neighborhood, except now she has more than an hour commute alone on the public bus to get to and from her new school.
Research has established that suspensions are ineffective at addressing misbehavior and making schools safer. I see that this is true every day in the work that I do. Students who are suspended inevitably fall behind in their classes and are more likely to become disengaged and disenchanted with school. When they return to school eventually, as most do, students rarely improve their behavior unless there has been an effort to get to the root of their behavior and put interventions in place to support them in school. Because of this, students who are suspended are more likely to be suspended again, and again, and again, until they are either expelled, drop out, or are arrested. You may have heard this phenomenon referred to as the school to prison pipeline.
Suspensions may offer temporary relief to frustrated teachers and other school staff, but they are not an effective strategy for promoting school safety or decreasing educational gaps. Suspensions are ineffective discipline tools that hurt many of DC’s kids by taking away the instructional time of those who need it most. By depriving so many children of an appropriate education, we are also depriving the wider community of the potential and value these children could have as educated, engaged and fully contributing members of society.
People in the District are calling for solutions not suspensions. On October 9th, 2014 as part of the 5th Annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout, AJE held “A Call to Action: Solutions not Suspensions,” an event at The Next Step Public Charter School. At this event, parents, teachers, youth and other members of the community took a stand for solutions not suspensions. Community members drafted postcards to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) calling for solutions not suspensions. They also made video statements about why school pushout matters to them. On October 21st, 2014 AJE sent a letter to the State Superintendent of Education along with 9 other organizations asking the state office to commit to finalizing District-wide discipline regulations by the beginning of the next school year and to invest in alternatives to suspensions. More than 50 postcard messages from community members were enclosed with the letter.
Providing students with the support they need to stay and succeed in school sends the message that their education is worth fighting for. At AJE we believe in individuals being the driving force for change in their own communities. If you would like to get involved in the Every Student Every Day Coalition please sign our statement of support and contact Alex Peerman at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want assistance with a school discipline issue please call or visit AJE at (202) 678-8060 and 25 E Street NW, 4th Floor Washington DC 20001.
You can receive updates about AJE’s school pushout work and #solutionsnotsuspensions campaign by following us on Twitter (@AJE_Inc) and Facebook.
The "Every Student, Every Day" Coalition seeks to raise awareness about school engagement and school pushout in Washington, DC. This is the second in a series of blog posts that describes different aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline. Each post is written by a member of the Coalition, so the series showcases the different perspectives that our members bring to this issue. To learn more about the Coalition's mission and see the current members of the ESED Coalition's Steering Committee, visit http://www.dcly.org/every_student_every_day_coalition.
 This data is from the public charter school’s middle school campus only because discipline data from its elementary school is currently not available.