I first introduced the Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act last year after the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a report on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions in the District, which I had required in the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013. The report found that during the 2012-2013 school year, over 10,000 of the District’s public school students were suspended at least once.
Data submitted to the Committee last February by DCPS and the Public Charter School Board found that during the first six months of school year 2013-2014, there were 5,100 students suspended. What was even more troubling about all of these statistics was the number of prekindergarten students that had been suspended.
When the District began its movement toward universal Pre-K, it was in response to a significant body of research that found that investments in early childhood development pay huge dividends in closing and preventing achievement gaps. These programs are intended to give students a strong start in their educations, and yet through some of our student discipline practices and procedures the only thing we may be starting early is a gap in education equity and access.
The adverse effects of out-of-school suspension and expulsion on a student can be profound. While there is no research out there that indicates that suspensions improve a child’s behavior or make schools safer, many studies have shown that students who are suspended or expelled are more prone to low academic achievement and landing in the juvenile justice system. Further, students who experience suspension and expulsion are as much as 10 times more likely to ultimately drop out of school than are those who have not.
We are beginning the preschool-to-prison pipeline before some students even have the opportunity to fully begin their educational pursuits.
The District would not be the first jurisdiction to recognize that when it comes to our youngest, zero tolerance-style school discipline policies are not always appropriate. The Committee provided members and staff with a list of 14 other jurisdictions who have put policies in place to either prohibit or limit suspensions and expulsions for students in early grades.
Notable among them, just last summer, the Chicago Public School Board of Education voted to prohibit the suspension of Pre-K through 2nd grade students except for cases involving extreme safety concerns. In Minneapolis, the Superintendent there has implemented a new Pre-K through 1st grade suspension ban for non-violent offenses. In California last year, the state legislature passed a law that eliminates in-school and out-of-school suspensions for children in grades K-3 for disruptive behavior currently and bans all expulsions for this reason.
The conversation regarding student discipline is ripe in the District of Columbia. As I said during the introduction of this bill, we need to grapple with the fact that suspension is at odds with teaching the social and behavioral skills many students lack. The director of the Yale University Child Study Center said it best: “We would never send a child home because that child was struggling at reading. We would never send a child home if that child was struggling with math. Why would we send a child home for struggling with social-emotional skills?”
I am not naïve to think that we can reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions in our public schools without providing resources to our LEAs to aide with some of the mental health issues our students are dealing with. I’ve met with several organizations that have successfully supported our schools in this work and will be looking to begin addressing it in the budget later this year.
My hope is that through this conversation we can all begin to rethink our approach to student discipline in the District. And with that I want to thank all of the witnesses for being here today.