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Originally published Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Show problem students a path to success instead of the door

Suspending or expelling students provides scant academic advantage. The Legislature is drafting proposals to transform school discipline.

Times editorial columnist

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Schools brandish suspensions and expulsions as the ultimate weapon, a tough action designed to grab students’ attention.

But kicking students out of school merely rewards bad behavior with time at home in front of the television.

As Washington state deepens education reforms intended to raise achievement, state lawmakers are smartly turning their attention to discipline.

Good. State rules around school discipline are vague and have contributed to racial disparities in education. Students can be kicked out of school indefinitely, some for several months or an entire school year.

State law guarantees an education to all public-school students, even while they are incarcerated, but that policy does not extend to expelled students. Districts have a choice whether to provide homework, textbooks and other academic opportunities to kids who are suspended. Many don’t.

It is a problem with huge ramifications.

Using data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, two advocacy groups, Washington Appleseed and TeamChild, counted 52,179 suspensions and expulsions during the 2009-2010 school year.

That’s enough students to fill each of the 47,860 seats at Safeco Field.

What’s worse, just 7 percent of the expelled students received educational services while out of school.

Showing problem students the door creates a problem that mounts. Schools with high suspension rates report lower graduation rates. Expelled students are more likely to drop out over time. Some end up in the juvenile-justice system, a pattern known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Many are minority students and it is no surprise then that minorities are overrepresented in the state’s prison system.

There’s a better pipeline for young people, one that starts in the cradle and leads to college. But it requires keeping kids in school.

Promising bills in the state House and Senate move the conversation forward. Senate Bill 5244, introduced by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, sets limits on suspensions and expulsions and requires districts to craft better discipline policies.

House Bill 1680, by Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, offers a broader approach that goes beyond discipline. There’s something to like in both bills.

This is a tough year to take on reforms that cost money but using the budget as a reason to punt on school discipline is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Here’s one reason: The state’s share of basic education for a K-12 student is $6,307. Educating that same student in the juvenile-justice system would cost $10,537.

A few students will always need to be removed from school to protect other students and preserve learning.

But some schools are already turning to other strategies to rein in misbehavior. The Big Picture High School in Highline uses home visits and frequent interactions with parents to ward off misbehavior. If it happens anyway, a problem student might be allowed a walk to cool off or time to talk with a trusted adult.

The school’s goal is to address the root causes of misbehavior, not simply punish it.

School violence in recent decades would seem to argue for tougher discipline. But research by the American Psychological Association does not back up the belief that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer. At any rate, Washington has fewer suspensions and expulsions due to weapons-related violence than from any other cause.

Still, I asked Big Picture’s co-principal, Loren Demeroutis, how he would handle a student bringing a weapon. It hasn’t happened yet.

“We don’t have students who bring weapons to school,” he said. “The point of home visits and meeting families is to really get to know the students.”

Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline School District, hopes to eliminate out-of-school suspensions by 2015.

From Enfield’s mouth to state lawmakers’ ears.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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