Public Roundtable before the Committee on the Education on The State of School Discipline: 2015-2016 School Year

Testimony of Eduardo R. Ferrer
Legal & Policy Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Public Roundtable before the Committee on the Education on
     The State of School Discipline: 2015-2016 School Year
Thursday February 2, 2017
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Good afternoon Chairman Grosso and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Eduardo Ferrer and I am the Legal & Policy Director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY) – a non-profit action tank focused on using data, research, evidence and our experience working directly youth and families to improve DC’s juvenile justice system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

DC Lawyers for Youth, as a member of the Every Student, Every Day coalition, is working for a public education system in DC in which every child is in school every day, gaining the skills necessary to become a successful adult.

The Every Student, Every Day coalition began addressing the issue of school exclusion a number of years ago, in large part, as a response to the city’s disconnected approach to attendance. On the one hand, there were efforts to refer an increasing number kids to court for truancy in hopes of increasing attendance[1], while, on the other hand, schools were literally pushing kids out the door for minor infractions.[2] We believe that both of these approaches are harmful. Instead, our coalition advocates for policies and programs that are proven to increase school attendance, enhance school engagement, promote student achievement, and decrease the District’s reliance on suspension, expulsion, school-based arrest, and court referral. 

Based on the data reported in OSSE’s recent State of Discipline Report, it appears that DC schools are decreasing their reliance on counter-productive discipline tools that exclude students from the school setting. When compared to the data reported in our 2013 District Discipline report, the recent OSSE report shows that the overall number of students who were suspended and expelled last school year has decreased, with the number of students suspended dropping by 27 percent (an average of about 7 percent a year) between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years.[3]

The Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act of 2015, the adoption of restorative justice at a number of traditional public and charter schools as both a philosophy and a set of tools, and the increased collection and publication of discipline data by DCPS and PCSB are examples of the progress that the District has made towards keeping kids in school.  We applaud these efforts, and, on behalf of the thousands of kids who have been able to sit in their desks instead of on their couches during the school day, we thank you, OSSE, DCPS, PCSB, and the LEAs and CBOs involved in these efforts for your work.

Unfortunately, based on our experience working with kids and families every day as well as the data reported in the State of Discipline Report, we still have a long way to go and are not moving fast enough.  There are still far too many kids being excluded from school every year, especially when the data shows that the kids who are being excluded at disproportionate rates are likely those most in need of the safety, structure, and support that school provides.   

1.     Far too many kids are missing school because of unnecessary suspensions

According to the OSSE report, in 2015-2016, 7,324 individual students (7.8% of all students) received suspensions. Cumulatively, this group received a total of approximately 12,665 suspensions.[4]

The data suggests that in the last four years, the number of suspensions have gone down.[5] While this decrease is hopefully the result of attention and investment in reducing the use of exclusionary school discipline policies, it is more important than ever to look at the findings in this report critically and determine how the District can continue to build on any improvements and further drive down the number of suspensions.

Even if the approximately 12,665 suspensions documented in the report are the only suspensions that happened in the District, this is too many kids out of school for too many learning hours. Though the District saw fewer preschool students suspended or expelled thanks to the passage of the Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act, for our young elementary students there were at least 3,200 documented suspensions (just in schools with grades five and under).[6]  During the 2015-2016 school year, 6% of all elementary school students in the District received at least one suspension. This number was similar (5.2%) in 2011-2012.  As a result, the overall decrease in suspensions has not changed the fact that many of our youngest kids are being suspended.

The 2,430 individual elementary school students who received suspensions are being sent a message early in their school career that is not setting them up for success.[7] Nearly 1,000 (969) KG-5 grade students received more than one suspension, and over 300 elementary school students received three or more suspensions.

Even more suspensions happen at the middle school level.  Of all middle school students in grades 6-8, 16.5% receive at least one out of school suspension. In these three grades, alone there are 2,355 individual students who have received a suspension, and 438 of these students received three or more suspensions. The OSSE report also stated that 422 6-8th grade students missed 6 or more days, and 342 6-8th grade students missed 11 or more days because of suspension.

The data is eye opening, but the data alone does not provide the full picture.  Based on our experience and the experience of our coalition partners, we know that school exclusion does not only happen through formal suspensions and expulsions. Given the push for accountability and data collection, it appears that schools have found creative ways not to document all out of school suspensions or the total number of days a student misses school because of a suspension.  These informal exclusionary practices 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 with a parent before they can be readmitted to school. Additionally, little is known about the use of in school suspension – how often is it being used, how many students does it really impact, what does in school suspension even mean.  Lastly, it is naive to think that the whole story on school exclusion is covered in a column totaling number of students suspended. A number doesn’t, by itself, characterize a school’s approach to discipline or attendance or culture.  Going forward, we need to be vigilant about the fidelity of how data is reported and find ways to better understand how schools are managing to reduce the documented number of school exclusions used by their school. 

2.     The kids in our District who most need to be in school are getting disproportionately pushed out

Though there are decreases in overall suspension numbers, there is a persistent and troubling disproportionality in suspensions by special education status, foster care status, race, and geography. Given that we know that disability status and socioeconomics drive both the achievement gap in schools and feed the school-to-prison pipeline, this strategy of disproportionately removing these particular groups of kids from school is counterproductive and works against helping our kids and our schools succeed.  

Students in special education are suspended at a rate of 1.4 times greater than students who are not in special education.[8] Among students who received Level 3 special education services, 22.4% received at least one suspension, compared to 7.5% of students not receiving Level 3 special education services. Also troubling is the rate of expulsions for students in special education: looking at the total expulsions for the 2015-2016 school year, 30% of expelled students were in special education.[9]

Among students who are in the foster care system, 18.7% received at least one suspension, compared to 7.7% of students not in foster care. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are also disproportionately suspended, and schools with larger percentages of students who qualify as at-risk suspend significantly more students.[10]

Kids from schools in under resourced areas of our city disproportionately bear the weight of school suspensions. Looking at the 20 schools that suspend the highest percentages of students, 15 of these schools are located in Ward 6, Ward 7 or Ward 8, and none of these 20 schools are in Wards 2 or 3.

3.     Black students are disproportionately suspended from school

Even as DC schools have had some success in reducing the use of suspension and expulsion, racial disparities in the use of school discipline have persisted. In 2015-2016, 94% of expulsions were for Black students, while Black students make up 76% of the overall student population reported on in the Discipline Report. 

Black students were significantly more likely to be suspended than their peers. In 2015-2016, 10.4% of all Black students were suspended compared to 2.5% of all Hispanic students and 0.6% of all White students. Looking at the intersectionality of race and gender, 12.8% of Black male students were suspended compared to 3.6% of Hispanic males and 1% of White males. Among female students, 8.1% of all Black female students were suspended compared to 1.4% of Hispanic female students and 0.2% of White female students. This means that Black male students are suspended at a rate of 5.8 times greater than other male students and Black female students are suspended at a rate that is 9.1 times greater than other female students.

As the report shows there is also racial disproportionality in school days missed due to discipline. Looking at all the students disciplined during the 2015-2016 school year, 83% of Black students disciplined missed more than 1 day of school because of out-of-school suspension compared to 75.5% of Hispanic students disciplined and 63% of White students disciplined. 

Additionally, looking at the intersectionality of race and disability, the racial disparities grow further: 17.7% of all Black students with disabilities are suspended, 5.1% of Hispanic students with disabilities are suspended and 2.1% of White students with disabilities are suspended. 

4.     School suspensions are heavily concentrated in particular schools

The OSSE Discipline Report states that seven schools in DC suspend 30% or more of their students and reports that twenty-five schools suspend 20% or more of their students, These twenty-five high-suspension schools account for approximately 38% of all suspensions in the District, even though they only constitute 10% of the total school enrollment.[11] 

Figure 1: Top 20 schools that suspend the highest percentage of their students

Category

School Name

Grades

Suspensions

Enrollment

% Students Susp

Public

Kramer MS

6-8

237

247

40.80%

Charter

Monument Academy

5-6

39

40

35.40%

Public

Jefferson MS Academy

6-8

162

273

33.70%

Charter

SEED PCS of Washington DC

6-12

204

352

32.90%

Public

Johnson, John Hayden MS

6-8

231

291

31.70%

Public

Brookland MS

6-8

218

315

31.60%

Charter

KIPP DC - AIM Academy

5-8

261

350

30.00%

Charter

Integrated Design Electronics Academy

9-12

120

281

29.30%

Public

Kelly Miller MS

6-8

342

450

28.90%

Charter

DC Prep - Benning MS

4-7

249

223

28.40%

Charter

KIPP DC WILL Academy

5-8

161

303

27.20%

Charter

KIPP DC Valor Academy

5-7

54

120

25.40%

Public

Ballou HS

9-12

429

933

25.30%

Charter

KIPP DC KEY Academy

5-8

187

341

25.30%

Public

Hart MS

6-8

233

381

25.00%

Charter

DC Prep - Edgewood MS

4-8

175

310

23.30%

Charter

KIPP DC College Preparatory Academy

9-12

262

505

22.90%

Charter

Paul PCS - Middle School

6-8

117

232

22.50%

Charter

The Children’s Guild

KG-8

126

326

22.00%

Public

Washington Metropolitan HS

9-12

59

150

21.90%

Charter

EL Haynes - HS

9-12

176

435

21.90%

Charter

EL Haynes - MS

5-8

155

373

21.90%

Charter

National Collegiate Preparatory

9-12

93

280

20.60%

Public

Dunbar HS

9-12

243

653

20.40%

Public

Anacostia HS

9-12

343

597

20.10%

To understand the full scope of suspensions, it is important to look at not just the percent of students that schools are suspending, but also the number of suspensions schools give. The report states that of all suspended students, 37% are suspended more than one time, and 16.5% are suspended three or more times. It is evident that the ill-effects of school suspensions are falling on a concentrated population: multiple suspensions are being borne by the population of students in these high-suspending schools.

For this reason, the number of suspensions (per capita out of 100) is more telling about a school’s suspension rate. The Equity Reports for 2015-2016 show that 39 schools suspended 30 or more students per every 100 students and 10 schools suspended 60 or more students per every 100 students.

Figure 2: Schools that have 60 or more suspensions per every 100 students

Category

School Name

Grades

Suspensions

Enrollment

% Students Suspended

Per capita (100)

Charter

DC Prep - Benning MS

4-7

249

223

28.40%

112

Charter

Monument Academy

5-6

39

40

35.40%

98

Public

Kramer MS

6-8

237

247

40.80%

96

Public

Johnson, John Hayden MS

6-8

231

291

31.70%

79

Public

Kelly Miller MS

6-8

342

450

28.90%

76

Charter

Ingenuity Prep

PK3-3

218

288

17.70%

76

Charter

KIPP DC - AIM Academy

5-8

261

350

30.00%

75

Public

Brookland MS

6-8

218

315

31.60%

69

Public

Hart MS

6-8

233

381

25.00%

61

Charter

DC Prep - Benning ES

PK3-3

268

444

14.70%

60

Though the overall percentages for DC are driven down by schools reporting zero suspensions, many schools continue to suspend high percentages of their population and for the kids at these schools, an overall reduction doesn’t impact their frequent and harmful experiences with school exclusion.

5.     School suspensions can be substantially further reduced in this school year with common sense changes

In the 2015-2016 school year, the reason behind at least 2,460 disciplinary actions (suspensions and expulsions) was “disrespect, insubordination, disruption,” a category that indicates no violence or illegal activity. If schools could no longer suspend for “disrespect, insubordination, or disruption,” suspensions would fall by at least another 19.4% in a single year.[12]

Additionally, at least 264 disciplinary actions fell under the category “Attendance, skipping, tardy.” While this is a smaller frequency, it is worth noting how absurd and counterproductive pushing students out of school for missing school is; this does nothing to work towards the goal of getting these students in the classroom to learn.  Suspensions for truancy/skipping/tardiness should be prohibited.

 6.     The OSSE report points to a substantial association between truancy and school exclusion

Among all students who were suspended in 2015-2016, more than 42% were truant compared to 19.1% of students without any disciplinary action. There is an even sharper increase in high school students with suspensions and truancy: 63.2% of high school students with a suspension were truant.

Intuitively, the idea that suspensions and disengagement in school, which is highly correlated with truancy, go together is not surprising. Suspended students risk falling behind class and are separately from peers and school networks. When a student gets the message “we do not want you here” from a school official, it is not hard to imagine that student becoming less invested and less interested or committed in attending. 

If our city is committed to reducing truancy with the goal of keeping kids in school, and our suspension and expulsion policies are contributing to the likelihood that kids will be truant, something needs to change. Decriminalizing truancy both in terms of prohibiting suspensions for truancy and revising the statutory scheme for referral to court would be good steps forward, sending the message that DC is committed to supporting kids and helping them be successful, rather than punishing our kids who are struggling. Disciplining problems by handing down punitive suspensions only makes the problem worse, and does nothing to address root causes.

7.     Data reporting must be improved

The third most common reason for disciplinary action is “Unknown.” In the report OSSE notes that in the data they received from PCSB and LEAs the disciplinary action reason values were not consistently used, and that there were 99 unique disciplinary reason values provided. They point out in particular that disciplinary reasons labeled as “Any other Tier 3 behavior” cannot be mapped in to a identified category.[13] Broad, general categories used for labeling disciplinary actions are not helpful for data analysis or interventions. How can DC truly improve at reducing school exclusion without clear and transparent reporting on why students are being suspended?

Moreover, it is notable in the report that only 883 in-school suspensions were reported in the 2015-2016 school year. Furthermore, only 18 LEAs and 77 schools (out of 63 LEAs and 223 schools) report to giving any in-school suspensions.  Even among the schools that use in-school suspension, only 8 schools have higher in-school suspension rates compared to out-of-school suspension rates. If in-school suspensions are truly as low as the report finds, why aren’t more schools using suspension in-school to avoid sending students home particularly in instances of non-violent infractions where the safety of students aren’t at risk? If these numbers are not reflective of the way in-school suspensions are being used, it is yet another example of poor data collection that limits what we can learn from and improve upon.

Recommendations and Next Steps

To continue making progress in reducing the use of out-of-school exclusion,

First, schools need to scale up what is working and ensure it is implemented with fidelity. In order to sustain and build efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions, the District should direct additional money to restorative justice programs and to other trauma-informed practices and staff. As DCPS works on the 2017-2018 budget allocation in the coming months, these programs should be at the forefront of planning. 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.

OSSE positively highlighted restorative justice practices in the Discipline Report, citing a reduction in suspensions by schools in its pilot program, and also reporting that schools implementing restorative justice practices “observed a shift in school culture marked by a greater sense of safety, belonging, and community.” This suggests that a greater investment in restorative justice will yield multiple benefits to help our kids. Along with keeping kids in school, improvements to school culture are also shown to help kids engage and succeed in school.[14]

Second, another necessary change consistent with continuing to reduce and avoid suspensions is updating the DCPS Disciplinary Code (5-B DCMR § 2502), which outlines student discipline policies for DCPS students, in light of what we have learned about the harm that school exclusion causes and the successes we have had with using alternatives to exclusion. Despite investments by DC schools to reduce student exclusion, the code still permits a wide range of responses to the broadly defined Tier 3 offenses: schools have the discretion to respond with anything from a verbal redirection to a nine-day suspension. Chapter 25 should also clearly incorporate restorative justice philosophy and practices, instead of merely giving it a passing mention. Additionally, the Chapter 25 should be revised to narrow the behaviors that can serve as grounds for suspensions, limiting this to situations where a student poses danger to the safety of the school.

Third, as the OSSE Report states, the District should continue to improve its data reporting, collection, and analysis.  We have provided a number of examples in our testimony with regard to failures reporting data completely, accurately, and with sufficient detail.  Such incomplete or non-standardized data collection from our schools severely limits the ability to analyze data in a meaningful way, and to identify, learn from, and improve upon best practices. In its report, OSSE commits to providing ongoing training for LEAs to improve at data collection and analysis practices.  This is a good start, but more is necessary.  Schools must be held accountable if they underreport or poorly report their school discipline data.  Additionally, in order to make sure the data that is reported is useful, OSSE, DCPS, and PCSB should consider working together to create a common definition of at least in school suspension, out of school suspension, and expulsion, as well as to create a common list of reasons justifying the suspensions (or at least a way to cross walk the data to a common, useful list).  

In closing, I want to thank the Committee for its commitment to reducing the use of school discipline and improving school engagement and achievement for all of our students. We hope to work with you on these recommendations and future efforts to ensure that every student is in school every day.



[1] The Attendance Amendment Act of 2013 which lowered the number of unexcused absences a student has before the school is required to refer them from family court is one example of efforts to prosecute truancy.  David A. Catania et al., Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013, 2013, http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/images/00001/20130614130043.pdf.

[2]DC Lawyers for Youth & The Every Student Every Day Coalition, District Discipline: The Overuse of School Suspension and Expulsion in The District of Columbia (June 2013) (attached) [hereinafter District Discipline].

[3] In the 2011-2012 school year District Discipline found that about 10,000 individual students were suspended, and in 2015-2016 according to the OSSE Discipline Report there were 7,324 individual students suspended.

[4] Summing the suspensions from the Counts of Disciplinary Action produces this number. For schools that reported “<5” the OSSE Equity Reports, which match for number of suspensions, were used.

[5] There were 18,720 suspensions in DC schools in the 2011-2012 school year for about 10,000 individual students, see District Discipline, supra note 2

[6] Restricting the number of suspensions listed in Equity Reports to only schools with 5th grade or below, there are 3,202 suspensions. This is a conservative  estimate as it does not include students in 5th grade and under suspended in schools that go above 5th grade.

[7] 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. https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/page_content/attachments/2015-16%20OSSE%20Discipline%20Report%20Updated%20Jan%206%202017.pdf

[8] Of all students in special education 15% are suspended, compared to 6.7% of students not in special education.

[9] To compare, 15% of all students in DC schools are in special education.

[10] Among all DC schools, the highest suspended schools suspend 41% of students, but among DC schools that have fewer than 25% of students qualifying for as-risk status, the highest suspension rate as 12.5%. Students that OSSE defines as economically disadvantaged are also suspended more than their peers: 9.3% compared to 1.9% of students not meeting the definition of economically disadvantaged.

[11] Using the Appendix of the District Discipline Report provides the percentage of students who received an out of school suspension. The total numbers of suspensions that happen at the twenty-five schools that suspend 20% of more of their students, and the enrollment for these schools, was taken from the OSSE 2015-2016 Equity Reports. Because the Discipline Report does not state the enrollment figure they use, and report to using a different methodology than the Equity Report, these numbers may differ slightly, but provide a close estimate.  According the Equity Report figures, the twenty-five schools total 4,876 suspensions (of the reported 12,665) and enroll 8,761 students (of the 85,550).

[12] Looking at Figure 38 in the Discipline Report, the” disrespect, insubordination and disruption” category sums to 2,460, which is 19.4% of the estimated 12,665 total. However, a sum of all labeled categories in Figure 38 reveals that only 7,294 of this estimated 12,665 total have been categorized. It is unclear if all suspensions were categorized. If this is incomplete data, it is likely that there are additional suspensions for “disrespect, insubordination and disruption.”

[13] Refers to Chapter 25 of the DCMR which can be accessed at: https://dcps.dc.gov/chapter25

[14] One example is a 2012 study where researchers found a correlation between school climate and academic achievement and engagement.  Alicia Doyle Lynch, et. al. Adolescent Academic Achievement and School Engagement: An Examination of the Role of School-Wide Peer Culture, Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2012), available at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10964-012-9833-0.


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