Discipline Code Under Review As Suspensions Lose Impact

Out-of-school suspensions occur "far too frequently" among District students, Chancellor Michelle Rhee says.
Out-of-school suspensions occur "far too frequently" among District students, Chancellor Michelle Rhee says. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009

Senior class president Christopher Jolly says suspensions are so common at Anacostia High School -- where eight students were injured, including three who were stabbed, in a melee two months ago -- that they have become meaningless as a form of discipline.

"The fact that everyone knows someone who has been suspended before often causes kids not to respect the suspension process," Jolly said at a community forum this month on D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's proposal to revise the District's student behavior code.

Rhee's changes would move the system in a direction that makes sense to Jolly: away from out-of-school suspension as the disciplinary method of choice and toward counseling, peer influence and more options for keeping suspended students in school.

Officials said reliable data on suspensions are hard to come by because recordkeeping has been slipshod. But the available numbers suggest a dramatic surge. According to District figures, suspensions grew 72 percent between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, from 1,303 to 2,245. That represents 4.5 percent of total enrollment. Numbers through November, the latest available for the current academic year, show suspensions running slightly behind last year.

Rhee says that out-of-school suspensions in the District occur "far too frequently," putting students behind in their work and increasing the likelihood that they will become truant or drop out.

The revisions, which must be approved by the D.C. Council, come against a backdrop of increased concern about violence and mayhem in schools. Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker told a recent council hearing that he has been inundated with complaints from instructors about the deteriorating environment in some schools, which he attributes in part to a new group of relatively inexperienced principals and teachers hired in recent years.

Although D.C. police say school violence is down this academic year, several serious incidents have caused concern among parents, teachers and administrators. On a single day in November, 19 girls at Dunbar High School were arrested for fighting. At Ballou High School that same month, a girl was sprayed with Mace and stabbed. Despite numerous suspensions, violence and disorder at Hart Middle School in Southeast grew so severe -- at least three teachers were assaulted during the fall term -- that Rhee fired the principal and dispatched a team of central office workers to stabilize the situation.

When former central office administrator Billy Kearney took over as Hart's principal in November, about 80 of the school's approximately 625 students were on suspension. He said that he has eased up on the practice and that the number is down to 10. Although problems persist -- two girls were handcuffed and removed by police this month after a series of fights over a boy -- he said he thinks there has been progress.

"These problems didn't happen overnight, and they won't get solved overnight," he said.

The existing code divides infractions and consequences into two categories and permits suspension of students at any grade level for minor transgressions.

Rhee's proposal, culled from what officials consider best practices in other school systems, divides student misconduct into five tiers, reserving suspensions and expulsions for the most serious incidents. In the first and second tier, for example, profanity, dress code violations or pushing and shoving would mean temporary removal from class or a parent-teacher conference. Persistent low-level violations would be met with stronger measures, but still short of suspension.

Offenses in the third tier -- including racial or sexual slurs, bullying or fighting without a weapon -- could trigger either in-school or out-of-school suspensions of up to 11 days. Fourth- and fifth-tier offenses, such as assault with a weapon, sexual misconduct, drug sales or arson, would result in off-site suspensions of up to 90 days or expulsion.

Jolly, a member of Youth-Led, an after-school program that teaches students community organizing and advocacy skills, surveyed about 100 of Anacostia's 1,100 students. He said three alternatives to suspension were most often mentioned: "therapy, peer mediation and parental support." Jolly said students need "the opportunity to express themselves positively and emotionally in a safe place where they won't feel judged."

Officials said they intend to expand the system's ability to keep suspended students in a classroom -- either in their schools or at the Choice Academy, an alternative school in Northeast Washington. They want to bolster "student support teams," groups of teachers, counselors and administrators, to intervene before problems worsen.

They also emphasized getting teachers to make discipline as much about instruction as it is about punishment.

"More conversation, less confrontation," Kearney said.

To read Rhee's full proposal for student discipline, visit

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