D.C. charter schools suspended and expelled students at widely varying rates in 2011-12, according to data released Thursday by the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
While the majority of charters did not expel any students, others kicked out dozens. And while some schools suspended only a handful of kids, others suspended more than 100 — more than half the student body, in a couple cases.
Every charter school has the right to design its discipline policy, and those policies have come under increasing scrutiny as city officials have stepped up efforts to make sure that kids are in school.
Scott Pearson, the charter board’s executive director, defended schools’ right to use discipline as they see fit — as long as they comply with federal civil rights laws. Several schools are up for their 15-year charter renewal this year, and Pearson said discipline policies would factor into decisions about which schools should be allowed to continue operating.
“We’re going to insist that student discipline policies are compliant with the law, and we’re going to encourage that student discipline policies be as enlightened as possible,” he said.
The highest expulsion rates — 5 percent of students — were at two charter high schools: Friendship PCS-Collegiate Woodson, which expelled 56 kids, and KIPP College Prep, which expelled 17.
Leaders of both schools said expulsions are a last resort, but sometimes are necessary to ensure they are places where kids can safely learn.
“Our schools are in problematic environments. With that comes neighborhood, home and relationship issues some of which are often brought into schools, including gangs,” wrote Donald Hense, chief executive of the Friendship charter network, in an e-mail. “We can either run safe buildings for students and staff, or we can pander to statistics.”
“We hate to lose any student ever — we don’t open up schools to kick kids out,” said Susan Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP DC. “But it’s absolutely essential that our parents feel safe sending their kids to school.”
Suspension rates varied even more widely. Many schools suspended less than 10 percent of their students. But at KIPP College Prep, 59 percent of students missed one or more days of school because of a discipline incident. At Maya Angelou Middle, an alternative school for struggling students, it was 70 percent.
Maya Angelou’s executive director, Lucretia Murphy, said suspension rates are higher there because of the population the school attracts — kids who have struggled with incarceration, chronic truancy or other problems.
“Suspension numbers are something we are always going to watch, but we will need to suspend” sometimes, she said.
Other school leaders said the suspension figures can be misleading because they include a high proportion of one-day suspensions, which have relatively little impact on a child’s learning but can be a powerful way to shape behavior expectations and school culture.
“In teaching character education we have a tiered system of consequences that’s very clear and spelled out in advance,” said Emily Lawson of D.C. Prep. “We want kids to understand when they don’t hold themselves to a high standard of behavior, they are accountable.”
Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, an advocacy group representing students with special needs, said she has met kids who were suspended from charter schools because of frequent tardies or failing to dress in uniform. Children shouldn’t be made to miss class — even one day of class — for those sorts of infractions, she said.