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Seattle ranks high in suspending elementary-school students with special needs
More than 18 million days of instruction are lost to school suspensions each year, including even the youngest students. A new report asks whether this makes sense.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mention school discipline, and most people picture harried teachers trying to control rowdy teens. But a new report analyzing national data shows that more than 548,000 elementary-school children — some as young as kindergarten — are suspended in a single year.
In 2011-12, they were among 3.5 million youths kicked out of classrooms for a week or less, totaling an estimated 18 million days of lost instruction, the report says. An additional 130,000 students were expelled.
Compiled by researchers at the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies, the analysis is the first to break out district-by-district rates for elementary-school suspensions. As shown in previous studies, minority students are suspended far more frequently than whites, a trend likely contributing to lower rates of academic achievement among blacks and Latinos.
Certainly, the team at UCLA interprets the data this way.
Its report, “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” views excessive school suspension as a serious civil-rights issue and suggests that many districts use it illegally — especially when disciplining students with special needs who, by law, may not be removed for behavior resulting from their disabilities.
Seattle was in the middle of the pack nationally when it came to overall suspension rates, though it logged stark disparities between black and white students. And among larger districts. it was in the top quartile for suspending elementary students with special needs.
Those early-education trends appear to worsen as students age. Nearly 38 percent of black males in special education were sent home from Seattle high schools in 2011-12. For black young women, the rate was only marginally better, at 29 percent.
Another local district, Clover Park near Tacoma, scored among the top three nationally for suspending special-needs elementary kids. Of the 1,040 children removed from schools there, almost half — 46.8 percent — were special-education students.
“The numbers were high,” agreed Deputy Superintendent Brian Laubach. “We needed to re-examine our practices.”
Since 2012, he said, Clover Park has begun combing through discipline data each month and training teachers to make classroom expectations clearer.
What troubles the UCLA team even more than total numbers are the disparities among categories of children.
“The huge differences observed between students with and without disabilities — the vast majority of whom are listed as learning disabled or emotionally disturbed — are shocking,” said Dan Losen, an author of the report.
His findings exclude information from some important districts — most notably, New York City, the country’s largest — because of problems researchers encountered with data-reporting there.
But the overarching pattern was serious enough that Losen believes it portends a lifetime of diminished opportunity for millions of young people.
“Our nation cannot close the achievement gap if we ignore the discipline gap,” he said.
Notably, the wide variance in suspension rates suggests that more than half of all districts are using that method as a last resort and have found other ways to manage student misbehavior.
Changing course, however, is not simple. Previous Education Lab stories have demonstrated that it takes a willingness to sift through data and devote significant staff-training toward new methods of reaching young people.
Teachers, meanwhile, say they are caught between pressure to keep disruptive kids in class at the same time they must prepare students for high-stakes testing.
In Seattle, while suspensions are declining overall, district data shows that almost half of all students removed in 2012-13 were black.
Dayone Florence, now 18, was among them. In his experience at Garfield High School, disagreement with teachers typically resulted not in discussion, but instant referral to the nearest disciplinarian.
“Their first response is they ‘can’t work with you any more,’ ” he said. “I would try to argue something, and instead of the teacher listening to me she’d say I was being a disruption to class and she couldn’t deal with it. It was the start of a downward trend. I stopped caring about school, and it did seem that with black students they went immediately to the maximum punishment.”
The suspensions piled up until Florence had fallen so far behind that he did not have enough credits to graduate on time. Since then, he has enrolled in Seattle’s Middle College High School, a small alternative program, and expects to receive his diploma in June.
The UCLA report does not examine the infractions that led to suspensions, though data from California, Texas and Washington show that the most frequent reasons cited are “disruption” and “defiance.”
Statewide, Washington’s suspension rates — 2.4 for elementary kids and 8.4 for secondary — are nowhere near Florida’s, which topped the nation at 5.1 percent and 19 percent, respectively, during the year studied.
But Losen finds no cause for comfort in hovering at the national average.
“Average numbers for the nation are deeply disturbing so anywhere around the average is likewise a very serious problem,” he said. “And Seattle is absolutely there.”
Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story.