D.C. Council members have taken a big step to reduce suspensions and expulsions, particularly as African American and other students of color are often the primary targets of such discipline.
The Council voted unanimously to advance the “Student Fair Access to School Act,” which would reduce the use of exclusionary discipline practices, including suspensions and expulsions.
“The full Council has taken the first step to protect every student’s right to an education, of which suspensions and expulsions deprive them,” said At-Large Council member David Grosso, who introduced the bill.
“We know how negatively suspensions and expulsions affect the students pushed out of school – they are more likely to fail academically, to drop out, and to end up involved in the criminal justice system,” Grosso said in a news release this week.
One of Grosso’s first acts as a council member was to require the collection and reporting of data on suspensions and expulsions, he said.
“The latest data demonstrates that Black students are nearly eight times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than White students. Students with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to receive at least one out-of-school suspension; at-risk students 1.5 times more likely,” Grosso said.
“Moreover, we are seeing an increase in the use of disciplinary actions for subjective reasons. It is unacceptable and, if we seek to close the racial achievement gap, we must end it,” he said.
The Student Fair Access to School Act limits out-of-school suspension of students in kindergarten through eighth grade to serious safety incidents and bans its utilization in high school for minor offenses.
If exclusion becomes necessary, the bill protects a child’s right to an education while they are off premises and requires a plan for the student to successfully return to the classroom.
The bill promotes more teacher training, mental health support and resources to clarify and improve school discipline practices.
It calls for changes to be phased in over the next three years. It also increases data requirements and reporting, which lawmakers say is especially important after it was revealed some D.C. public schools were sending kids home without documenting it as a suspension.
But the biggest change for the bill moving forward is its ban on out-of-school suspensions for Kindergarten through Eighth grade except in serious cases, and in high school for minor offenses like uniform violations or talking back to a teacher, according to a WAMU report.
The bill follows a trend across the country to ban suspensions, especially in lower grades, to address the disproportionate suspensions of students of color.
Last year, 60 percent of suspensions in the District were for nonviolent offenses. Grosso said that subjectivity is partially to blame.
“What I might think is a violation of the dress code or someone talking back to me disrespectfully might not be true of someone else,” Grosso said. “And because of that difference, it was important we put that into the law.”
This bill also limits how many days a student can be suspended, and it requires schools to provide work to suspended students – something that doesn’t always happen.
Child advocates who represent students and families say too many schools rely heavily on suspensions.
“We have many parents who are called at 11 o’clock every morning: ‘Come and get your child,” Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, told WAMU.
Both public and charter school leaders have pushed back against the legislation, saying they need suspensions to remain on the table to address unique situations.
The school suspension overhaul bill will get a final vote in the D.C. Council this spring.
“This collaborative legislation is the result of over a year of work, which included input from students, parents, teachers, school leaders, student and family advocates, researchers, mental health practitioners, government agency heads, and my colleagues,” Grosso said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues before the final vote and working through the Council budget process to provide significant investment in school-based behavioral health supports for our students and other resources to help schools.”