The District's school leaders are decrying a D.C. Council proposal that would limit administrators' authority to suspend and expel unruly students, saying it could endanger teachers and usurp their ability to discipline students.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) wrote the measure , which would prohibit out-of-school suspensions for what he calls minor offenses. Grosso described it as an effort to push schools to adopt alternative disciplinary practices. Critics of suspensions say they derail a child's educational progress while doing little do address underlying causes of misbehavior.
"What we're trying to do is getting people in K though 8 to invest in accountability mechanisms like restorative justice," said Grosso, referring to a practice of getting students to talk out conflicts with teachers or students. He also worries about disparate use of suspensions: Black students in the District are seven times as likely as their white peers to face suspension.
"We're really afraid that this disparity in suspensions is a result of racial bias," said Grosso, whose measure is co-sponsored by three other members of the 13-member council.
School leaders called the bill shortsighted and onerous, saying it impinges upon their ability to effectively deal with students who disrupt learning. They point out that they have made progress in reducing school suspensions.
The D.C. schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, said the bill could have unintended consequences. Schools barred from suspending children for more than 20 days, as the bill outlines, may instead expel them.
"Requiring a one-size-fits-all approach could lead to some challenges for schools that have other approaches that work," Wilson said.
The District has recorded a drop in student suspensions and expulsions in recent years. A January report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that about 7,300 students were suspended in the 2015-2016 school year in the District's schools, including traditional and charter schools. A year before, the district recorded 8,400 suspensions. The numbers were not entirely comparable because different methods were used to count suspensions, but officials at the time said they represented a significant decline.
Wilson and Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said the numbers show they are addressing school discipline issues and do not need the D.C. Council's intervention.
Pearson said discipline decisions "need to be made by the people who are best situated to make those decisions."
D.C. Public Schools faced scrutiny after a Washington Post investigation found that seven high schools had hidden suspensions by using "do not admit" lists, sending students home and barring them from campus without officially suspending them. At some schools, students were not allowed to return unless they came with a parent, which led to extended absences for students whose parents were unable to get time off work. Grosso's measure would bar that requirement.
Wilson said Wednesday that he has made clear to schools that they are to properly document suspensions. He has also called for an audit of a sample of schools to ensure that they are complying with the District's discipline policies.
Grosso's bill would bar schools from suspending students until high school. An exception would be made if a child threatens or causes "significant bodily injury or emotional distress."
Under Grosso's proposal, high schools would be given more latitude to suspend students than elementary and middle schools have, but they would be prohibited from kicking students out of high school for infractions such as dress code violations, tardiness, rowdiness and insubordination.
Patrice Wedderburn, a staff attorney with Advocates for Justice and Education, a group that helps special-education students and their families, said many schools have stopped suspending children unnecessarily. But the proposed measure could force what she calls "the bad actors" to change their ways.
"We really want to see pressure on schools to create alternatives to suspensions," she said.