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School leaders in DC generally agree that suspensions and expulsions should be used as a last resort when disciplining students. Still, many schools are too quick to invoke those measures, according to a recent report.

During the 2012-13 school year, 13% of DC students—about 10,000—were suspended at least once. African-American students were almost six times as likely to be disciplined as white students. Hispanic students were more than twice as likely.

Those racial disparities mirror national trends, which have led to concerns about equity and what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out and end up incarcerated.

Last year the federal government issued guidelines urging “strong due process protections” for all students before suspending or expelling them. And a recent report by a DC-based organization argues that traditional public and charter schools here don’t always provide those protections.

The report, produced by the Council for Court Excellence, found that almost all school administrators interviewed believed that exclusions from school should be a last resort. At the same time, most charter schools provide that certain offenses, including some non-violent ones, will result in automatic expulsion.

The report recommends that students facing expulsions or suspensions of over ten days have the right to a hearing before an impartial officer, to have counsel representation, and to appeal the decision. Students who are suspended for even a short time should be able to keep up with the instruction their classmates are getting, the report says.

DC Public Schools has a disciplinary code that provides for these protections, but some say it’s not clear schools routinely abide by it. For example, the report cites evidence that DCPS has been evading the rules by invoking emergency procedures when a case isn’t really an emergency.

Charter disciplinary codes vary

Each charter school in DC has its own disciplinary code, and the report says many don’t provide adequate protections for students. Only 37%, for example, provide for a hearing by an impartial officer rather than someone affiliated with the school.

One charter failed to provide any hearing at all for a student who was expelled for a non-violent offense, according to Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, director of legal services at Advocates for Justice and Education, a group that represents students in disciplinary proceedings. The school provided a hearing only after AJE got involved, by which point the student had missed five months of instruction.

At the hearing, the school gave the student’s mother, who didn’t understand English, a document in Spanish that mistakenly said the student had been suspended rather than expelled. Ultimately, the school reversed its decision.

Despite reports that charter schools have been expelling fewer students recently, Hiligh-Thomas says her organization continues to see quite a few such cases. “I wouldn’t put a whole lot of weight on self-reporting of charter schools,” she said.

Alternative schools

When DCPS imposes an expulsion or long-term suspension, it can send the student to an alternative school called CHOICE Academy if the student is in sixth grade or above. There’s no equivalent school available to charters, and students who are expelled or suspended often end up in the DCPS system. The report recommends establishing an alternative school for the charter sector.

In fact, the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools is trying to bring a school like that to DC. Dr. Ramona Edelin, executive director of DCACPS and a member of the committee that produced the CCE report, said the group has identified a charter operator that would be “a wonderful fit.” The challenge at this point is finding the money to fund the school’s start-up.

But to be a solution to the discipline problem, an alternative school needs to be well-run. Parents have complained that DCPS’s CHOICE Academy isn’t safe and doesn’t offer rehabilitation or even actual instruction. One parent described it as a “holding cell,” according to a report by DC’s school ombudsman.

Reform advocates want a restorative justice approach

Ultimately, the authors of the CCE report and other reform advocates want schools to adopt methods of disciplining students that don’t involve excluding them from school. One such method is restorative justice, which uses techniques like “restorative circles” to bring together perpetrators and victims of misbehavior, and sometimes their families as well.

The idea is to get kids to think about the underlying causes of their behavior, and to impose consequences for misconduct that allow students to remain in school while prompting them to change their ways.

Some school systems have apparently had good results with restorative justice, and DCACPS offers training in the approach to charter administrators in DC.

But some charter leaders are skeptical. Eva Moskowitz, the outspoken leader of New York’s Success Academies charter network, recently scoffed at the introduction of “restorative circles” into the city’s traditional public schools, dismissing the term as “edu-babble.”

“Suspensions convey the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community,” Moskowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

She argued that suspensions are necessary to ensure the orderly environment that allows students to learn. And they prepare students for the real world, she said. There, “when you assault your co-worker or curse out your boss, you don’t get a ‘restorative circle,’ you get fired.”

Hiligh-Thomas, on the other hand, compares schools to families. “We don’t have the right to kick our kids out of our home when they’re not compliant with our rules,” she says. “We have to teach them discipline with love.”

Schools do have a legitimate interest in keeping disruptive students from interfering with the education of others. But disruptive students also have a right to an education, and excluding them from school makes it unlikely they’re going to get it.

And suspension doesn’t seem to change kids’ behavior. Teachers and administrators have told me the same kids get suspended over and over again.

Restorative justice and other alternative techniques are worth trying, as long as they don’t amount to a free pass for kids who violate the rules. But the question is whether harried school administrators will voluntarily move from the quick fix of excluding disruptive students to methods that involve more time, effort, and patience.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.