Nearly two decades after it began tracking student discipline, Seattle Public Schools continues to struggle with a chronic problem: African American students are still far more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled.
The “discipline gap” persists even as the district drastically lowered the overall number of students who were expelled last year, new statistics show.
Compared with white students, African Americans were nearly twice as likely last year to receive short-term suspensions, lasting 10 or fewer days. Long-term suspensions were imposed on black students more than twice the time.
The district has made an effort in recent years to provide better training to teachers and administrators and focus on alternatives to suspending or expelling students. But short—and long-term suspension rates are virtually unchanged since 2000, and in some cases are higher.
Flynn said the district needs to do a better job of lowering discipline rates, especially for black and Hispanic students.
It’s a daunting problem that has long frustrated district officials. Several task forces have been convened to study the problem and make recommendations—recommendations that were rarely followed.
In its five-year strategic plan, approved last spring, the School Board formally set a goal of narrowing the discipline gap by 20 percent a year, starting in 2005-06.
There has also been a “big shift” in how discipline is meted out, McFadden said.
That change is reflected in the district’s discipline standards, which were revised in 2004. They direct administrators to select the “least form of corrective action or punishment” necessary to change a student’s behavior before resorting to a short-term suspension.
Flynn firmly believes that there is a link between the discipline gap and the academic achievement gap.
Many students who are suspended or expelled are already on weak ground academically, she said, and keeping them away from school isn’t going to help them. In some cases, it could push them to drop out.
“If we’re not connecting the dots between academic success and academic suspensions, we’re missing a very logical connection,” Flynn said.
The solution might be to do away with suspensions and expulsions, except for extreme cases, she said. “Maybe this needs to go the same way as corporal punishment.”