D.C. School Suspensions Drastically Down, But Concerns Remain

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO jwright@afro.com
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On Jan. 6, the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) released a report, “State of Discipline: 2015-2016 School Year” that documented the falling number of suspensions in D.C. schools. The report also outlined procedures designed to make sure the practice is executed in the best interest of the city’s school children and families.

David Grosso
D.C. Council member David Grosso is the chairman of the Committee on Education. (Courtesy Photo)

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) convened a roundtable with the title of the report as the hearing topic and said while the numbers of suspensions are decreasing, more work needs to be done. “We are seeking ways to reduce out-of-school suspensions,” Grosso said. “Studies have shown that out-of-school suspensions negatively impact the community.”

Roundtables are information gathering sessions for D.C. Council members with no legislative business.

The report said the number of suspensions went from 11,000 in total in school year 2013-2014 to 6,695 in 2015-2016. It also noted that the number of students suspended decreased from 5,758 in school year 2013-2014 to 4,097 in 2015-2016.

Of those suspended, the report said, Black males were 5.8 times more likely to endure that type of punishment than other males. Overall, the report showed that all students expelled during the 2015-2016 school year were either Black or Latino and while Blacks make up less than 70 percent of the school population, they were 97 percent of those expelled.

Arthur Fields, the interim special advisor for Student Services for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), said suspensions are headed down. “I oversee the District’s work surrounding behavior, attendance, and health and wellness. And we are particularly proud of the work DCPS has accomplished over several years to strengthen school climate, increase school attendance, and ensure that students have the services and supports they need to thrive in our schools,” Fields said. “All of this has contributed to a noticeable decrease in DCPS’ suspensions and it has directly impacted our overall attendance, and is most likely affecting student, teacher, and parent satisfaction.”

One parent that hasn’t been satisfied with the school systems disciplinary process is Eleasah Banks. Banks, a resident of Southeast Washington, told Grosso that her daughter was “suspended for three days for bringing a weapon to school.”

Grosso was surprised when he found that the “weapon” was a sharply pointed yet dull, key chain.

“Many parents have to work to take care of their families and they can’t come to the school to resolve discipline issues,” Patricia Wedderburn, a staff attorney with Advocates for Justice & Education, said. “That’s where we come in and we try to resolve these issues at the school level before a suspension takes place.”

“I know this subject well because I served as the Ward 8 member of the D.C. State Board of Education,” D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) said. “When boys miss school they tend to drop out. Suspension is part of the school to prison pipeline.”

Retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Arthur L. Burnett Sr., chairman and president of the Youth Court of the District of Columbia, told Grosso that many students who are repeatedly suspended come from homes where domestic violence, drugs, and prostitution take place and teachers and administrators need to be more sensitive to that. “When a sleeping student pushes a teacher away, that is not a cause for a suspension but understanding,” he said.

Fields said that to address misbehaving students, the school system has instituted programs such as the School Climate Initiative, designed to make schools a wholly positive environment for students; Restoring Justice, that works with social service agencies to create a positive school culture and developing relationships with students; and ninth grade academies that focus on preparing students for higher academic demands.

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