Sarah Anne Hughes, on Jun 6, 2014

A report from the Office of the State Superintendent reveals that students who are black, male, in foster care, homeless, or who have mental health needs are disproportionately suspended or expelled from D.C. schools.

In the 2012-2013 school year, local education agencies reported that 5,042 students received in- and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for violence, drugs, alcohol, and weapons. Students in 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th grades had the highest number of discipline events, but suspensions and expulsions even impacted children as young as three-years-old. During this period, there were 181 pre-K out-of-school suspensions for a federally reported disciplinary action. That number was 201 for kindergarten, 464 for 1st grade, 523 for 2nd, and 600 for 3rd.

"The idea that we would suspend somebody who's three- or four-years-old is just completely unreasonable," said Councilmember David Grosso, who mandated the report's creation.

Eddie Ferrer, Legal and Policy director for DC Lawyers for Youth, said the report confirms that suspensions and expulsions are overused in D.C. "They disproportionately impact poor kids of color, kids who have suffered or are suffering trauma, and kids with disabilities," he said. "We are suspending and expelling the kids who most need and would most benefit from being in a supportive school environment."

Black students from all D.C. schools are almost six times more likely to be disciplined than white students for alcohol, drugs, violence and weapons. Male students are 1.68 times more likely to be suspended or expelled for these reasons than female students, and homeless students are 1.2 times more likely to be disciplined this way.

While the report shows the racial and socioeconomic disparities in these forms of discipline, Ferrer said it underreports the problem. Indeed, the report primarily uses data on the type of incidents that are required to be reported federally. With this data, it appears that the vast majority of students are disciplined for violence without injury.

But according to a 2013 report from D.C. Lawyers for Youth, "the vast majority of DCPS suspensions are for offenses involving no weapons, no drugs, and no injury to another student. Further, the majority of these suspensions are not required by law or by school regulation, but carried out under discretionary authority."

Individual schools do release data on suspensions and expulsions in an Equity Report. From this data, we know that 12 percent of all students received an out-of-school suspension for at least one day during the 2012-2013 school year. Eight schools suspended at least 50 percent of all students for at least one day, while 37 schools reported suspending at least 25 percent.

But these reports do not reveal the exact reason these students were suspended. In their report, OSSE calls for an improvement in discipline-related data collection to improve transparency.

Ferrer and Grosso both called the report a good start. While OSSE recommends that D.C. schools not suspend out-of-school or expel pre-K students, both men believe this should apply to children in 3rd grade and below. "If those things were making any difference," Grosso said, "we wouldn't see ... a spike in suspensions and expulsions in middle school. What we would see is a drop-off if it had a positive impact during the elementary years."

Ferrer called the middle school suspension rate "incredibly disturbing."

"We have a big problem with truancy at the high school age," he said. "And I think part of the reason why is, by the time they're getting to high school, a number of students have been told 'We don't want you here.' They eventually learn that lesson."

OSSE agrees: "Recognizing that suspensions and expulsions actually increase the likelihood that students will misbehave in the future, become truant, fail to graduate, develop substance abuse issues, or encounter the juvenile justice system, LEAs should take particular care in the behavioral interventions being used to discipline our youngest students."

Grosso points to the Positive Behavior Intervention System, a preventive program, which "can decrease discipline referrals, suspensions and detentions, and disruptive classroom behavior, while increasing academic performance, on-task behavior, parent, student and staff satisfaction, and staff retention."

The report calls for LEAs to "evaluate discipline policies and procedures to ensure best practice in application, record keeping, training, and data analysis." When asked why this isn't already happening, Ferrer said it's part training and part support. "Despite the fact that so many resources are going to our schools, they're needed on the academic side," he said. "And we've been less effective at resourcing the wrap-around services and the social-emotional learning side of our schools."

There's also a cultural change that needs to happen, he said. That includes ensuring that kids are in school every day, and using suspensions and expulsions as a last resort.

"All of our schools need to be implementing programs that see the students where they are, at the point they are in life and their situation, and help address those situations," he said. "We have a long way to go to fully understand what's going on in the schools."