By Ador Pereda Yano
Northwest Asian Weekly
Around fifty parents, youths, educators, and community members attended a Saturday afternoon event at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle Jan. 30 to discuss unfair school discipline practices, especially the unequal distribution of suspensions and expulsions among students of color in Washington state’s school system.
To encourage local community discussions on this problem, which contributes to the national problem of a school-to-prison pipeline, three Washington state commissions and a White House initiative sponsored the Education Roundtable on School Discipline.
The Commission on African American Affairs (CAAA), the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA), and the Commission on Hispanic Affairs (CHA) organized the event, in partnership with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI).
The current state of things
Courtney Chappell, regional director of the White House initiative, stressed the importance of addressing discriminatory school discipline, as well as bullying and low-graduation rates. The Obama administration is providing resources and services to respond at the national level.
Uriel Iñiguez, executive director of CHA, who welcomed the community to the event, stated the basic problem — students of color are being suspended or expelled disproportionately and are not receiving the educational support they need in order to succeed. He said that there are enough studies and that action from the parents, teachers, and the community are needed now to resolve student discipline issues in the schools.
The Washington state data presented during the event by Mike Brunet, board president of Washington Appleseed, which conducts the school system studies, confirmed the stark situation confronting students of color. Statewide discipline data from the 2012–13 school year showed that Black students are 2.73 times more likely to be expelled than their white peers, while American Indian students are 2.11 times more likely to be expelled than white students. Latino students and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islander students are, respectively, 1.72 and 1.39 times more likely to be expelled than their white counterparts.
Brunet stressed that the majority of disciplinary incidents are for non-violent student behaviors, but minor incidents can result in significant school days missed by students.
Linking social behavior to success
During the 2012–13 school year, Washington state students missed a total of 130,000 days of school due to exclusionary discipline, mostly short-term suspensions. The data provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction also showed not just racial disparity but excessive disciplinary actions toward low-income students and Special Education students.
A panel of agency representatives moderated by Sara Franklin, a member of the CAAA, shared information about available resources and services at the state and federal levels that aim to protect the rights of students and their families. Wanda Billingsley, an experienced educator who is the director of Title 1 and learning assistance programs in Federal Way, described a federally supported framework called Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) that reinforces the linkage between social behavior success and academic success. In addition, Billingsley stressed that there is a real need for honest discussions about race and knowing how to recognize biases in the school system.
Panelist Sukien Luu, supervisory attorney in the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, presented a guide for parents and student advocates filing complaints of discrimination in schools. She described the process for investigating complaints within her region, which includes Washington state, Alaska, and Hawaii.
Her team of attorneys and investigators also performs compliance reviews to ensure that school districts and educational institutions getting funding from the U.S. Department of Education are not implementing discriminatory policies. She said her office is looking seriously at the “school-to-prison pipeline” problem.
At the state level, Jennifer Harris from the Washington state governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds suggested how best to pursue complaints about school discipline incidents in the state. She suggested addressing behavioral challenges early before serious incidents occur. Documentation is also very important, and for a thorough investigation of an incident, the student interview must be included to get the student’s side of the facts. Beyond school discipline problems, the Education Ombuds office also encourages parents to document and report harassment, intimidation, and bullying incidents.
What should be done
During the second half of the education roundtable, members of the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight & Accountability Committee (EOGOAC), a state-mandated taskforce in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), discussed their key recommendations, which then led to a group discussion with the community attending the event.
Committee co-chair Frieda Takamura stressed that school discipline is not a single issue existing in a vacuum. She said that it is a part of a larger system and that there must be a change in the whole school culture.
Takamura criticized the prevailing attitude that students are “problems” to be dealt with. She instead emphasized the idea that students are “assets.”
For example, multilingual students bring valuable language skills to schools they attend so these students’ skills should be nurtured, not diminished into an English-only language requirement. As part of changing the culture of schools, Takamura also mentioned the need for recruiting, hiring, and retaining teachers and staff of color.
James Smith, another taskforce committee member, highlighted key Washington state data on school suspensions, but he also stressed that the data collected do not show effects of institutional racism, of homelessness, and other attributes that affect student behavior and performance. He also pointed out the need for disaggregated data, which reveal disparities within a diverse group such as Asian Americans.
Smith explained that the taskforce focused on two categories of discipline,
mandatory (incidents involving guns, knives, and drugs) and discretionary (behavioral issues). He pointed out that Washington State has the highest number of students referred to the juvenile justice system for non-criminal acts. Smith reiterated that the school-to-prison pipeline has to stop; his committee has recommended the elimination of suspension and expulsion at the elementary school level.
According to Smith, disproportional discipline applies not just to male students but also female students of color. He questioned whether the way students wear their clothes or the way they talk in class are really more important than students being removed from school and not learning. He stated that peopel have an obligation to educate and serve all kids, that services and opportunities for them must be created, which will requireut-of-the-box thinking to ensure that institutional racism does not influence student discipline.
The community chimes in
During the roundtable community discussion that followed, community members raised other school issues. In addition to discriminatory student discipline, the participants were also concerned with bullying, suicide prevention, sexual harassment, and police involvement in schools.
One attendee criticized inadequate teacher training — not preparing teachers for classrooms with students of color and not effectively preparing them to be culturally responsive. Another community member suggested recruiting other students as volunteers to make other kids feel welcome and supported in class.
Near the end of the community discussions, there was an emotional appeal for the school policy makers to not just “talk the talk, but walk the walk.” This involves funding and hiring much-needed staff to provide students of color with not just academic support but culturally competent social support. Another attendee expressed that if kids feel rejected, they will not flourish. One community participant pointed out the need for teacher and administration accountability regarding student disciplinary actions. Too much burden is put on the student and parents; the educational process must be balanced by policies that make teachers and administrators accountable.
Finally, a community participant, Sheila Stanton, crystallized the educational issue this way: People need to understand the students as children that everyone is responsible for. “You can’t teach them if you don’t love them.” (end)
Ador Pereda Yano can be reached at email@example.com.