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'Cautiously Optimistic' 

Spokane Public Schools has seen improvement since committing to reducing suspensions, but the hardest part is yet to come

click to enlarge Spokane Public Schools is hoping reducing student suspensions will lead to long-term student success. - JENNIFER DEBARROS
  • Jennifer DeBarros
  • Spokane Public Schools is hoping reducing student suspensions will lead to long-term student success.

In a fourth-floor room in the Spokane Public Schools district office, the bar graphs and numbers on the projector screen look encouraging. Suspensions have gone down. Arrests have fallen. And the disproportionate rate at which minorities are kicked out of school has shrunk.

Fred Schrumpf watches last week's presentation from the side of the room. The district, facing pressure after having the highest rate of suspensions or expulsions in the state, committed last year to reforming its discipline practices. Much of that work fell on Schrumpf, who took on a new role starting this year as coordinator of "restorative practices" — an approach to disciplining students that focuses less on punishing kids, and more on correcting the root cause of misbehavior.

"It's a system-wide change," he says.

So far, it's a change that has seen some success, judging by the overall numbers on suspensions and arrests. But zoom in closer, and district data highlights underlying issues that persist: Poorer students and special education students are far more likely to be suspended than their peers, and elementary schools, especially in first grade, aren't seeing the same progress in reducing suspensions as higher grades.

"I think the data is promising," says Vanessa Hernandez, youth policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. "But there's still, obviously, some areas of concern."

TEACHING BEHAVIOR

Schrumpf explains restorative practices to school administrators as a teaching opportunity for students, not a punishment. Merely punishing kids for breaking rules, Schrumpf says, wasn't changing behavior.

Matt Halpin, a teacher at North Central High School, says the explanation that stuck with him was this: If a student doesn't know how to add three-digit numbers, they're taught how. If a student doesn't know how to exercise, they're taught how. If students don't know how to behave, teachers should teach them how to do that as well. He doesn't see this as more work, because it's beneficial in the long run.

"Restorative practices has given me the chance to take it further than discipline or punishment," Halpin says.

It's more than a change in attitude. Schrumpf says in-school intervention rooms added this year at the secondary level make it easier to implement restorative practices. Rather than an in-school suspension, an intervention staff person will work with a disruptive student on their behavior in such a room instead of punishing them. The district also added more principal assistants in secondary schools to handle the extra work.

Since last year at this time, the number of suspensions has gone down in all middle and high school grades. Last year, through half a school year, 355 eighth-graders had been suspended, whereas only 188 were suspended this school year.

Less punitive punishments don't only apply to teachers and staff, but to school resource officers, too. Mark Sterk, director of safety, risk management and transportation for Spokane Public Schools, says there has been an 88 percent reduction in arrests through Feb. 8 compared to the same time period last year.

Krista Elliott, a public defender for Counsel for Defense handling juvenile cases in Spokane, was critical of the number of students arrested at Spokane schools in previous years. Now, she says she is "cautiously optimistic" about the lower number of arrests she's seen this year.

"I'm proud they are making those attempts to do that for the kids, to keep them in the school and teach them better lessons in the school, as opposed to the court," Elliott says.

But it's not clear if student behavior has improved.

"Those are two different conversations," says Adam Swinyard, chief academic officer for Spokane Public Schools.

During the meeting with the school board, Swinyard said the district will work on finding data that could help identify if student misbehavior is increasing.

Meanwhile, in elementary schools, the numbers regarding suspensions are less promising. Both first- and sixth-graders are being suspended more than they were last year, according to district data.

Jenny Rose, president of the Spokane Education Association, notes that in-school intervention rooms and additional staff have not been added in elementary schools. In fact, Rose says, the emphasis on not suspending students has elementary school principals calling parents to pick up misbehaving children, instead of documenting incidents as suspensions.

Sue Chapin, vice president of Spokane Public Schools' board of directors, says it's important that the focus on keeping misbehaving students in school doesn't sacrifice the safety, or the sanity, of the school environment.

However, making those decisions isn't an exact science, Swinyard says.

"If we eliminate suspensions, and people don't feel safe, and the learning's not moving forward," Swinyard says, "then we have missed the mark."

CULTURE CHANGE

In Spokane Public Schools, a white student is still less likely to be suspended than a student of color. But the disproportionate suspensions of black and Native American students has gone down so far this year compared to last, district data shows.

What hasn't improved is how often special education students are suspended compared to other students. Special education students — students with disabilities — make up 13 percent of the district population but represent a third of all suspensions.

Bob Douthitt, a school board member who recently announced his resignation, suggests that the district break down the data to show how many of those suspensions are of "behavioral intervention" students, or students with more serious behavior issues who fall under the special education category. He says the high number of suspensions for those students may skew the data for all special education students.

Hernandez, with the ACLU of Washington, says she hears complaints about students being suspended or expelled from school from parents of all special education students, not just behavioral intervention students.

"It is possible that particular classrooms are disproportionately driving suspension and expulsion of kids with disabilities. Until they disaggregate the data, we don't know," Hernandez says. "But I would hope the conversation doesn't stop there, to say, 'Those are the problem kids.'"

Even more of a disproportionality in the data, however, involves students on free or reduced lunch. Making up nearly half of the student population, students on free or reduced lunch have made up 80 percent of suspensions this school year, according to district data. Kids growing up in poverty are more likely to be exposed to what's called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, that can lead to problematic classroom behavior, Hernandez says.

"That raises questions of what supports do our children in poverty need?" says school board president Deana Brower.

Statistics on student discipline help identify where more resources need to be placed, Schrumpf says. But really changing the system of punitive discipline? That takes more work.

"A culture shift is really part of it," Schrumpf says. "And that's the hard part." ♦

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