The D.C. Council moved closer Tuesday to overhauling school punishment policy in a bid to address dramatic disparities in discipline rates among black and white students.
The council’s education committee voted unanimously in favor of restricting the circumstances when a school can suspend or expel a student.
The five members of that committee framed the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of black students in the District as a civil rights issue. The legislation will now move to the full 13-member council.
Black students in D.C. schools are nearly eight times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white peers, according to city data.
“This is not only wrong and a question of human and civil rights, but it also directly undercuts our efforts to close the achievement gap in D.C.,” Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said before the vote. “We need to realize that putting students out of school is putting them behind academically.”
In kindergarten through eighth grade, the legislation would limit student suspension and expulsion to incidents of threatened or actual violence, and emotional distress.
Under the proposed revision, high school students would not be suspended or expelled from school for rule infractions such as uniform violations or disrupting a class.
Out-of-school suspensions would not last longer than five consecutive days for students in elementary and middle school, and 10 consecutive days for high school students. Schools must provide academic work for students while they are suspended.
If passed, the revised discipline policy would be phased in over the next three years.
“It’s imperative that administrators consider alternatives to suspensions and expulsions,” said council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who voted to advance the bill. “We must make sure that our discipline policies put students first.”
The discipline policy has received support from local children’s advocacy groups, but school system administrators have pushed back against it and said the restrictions could prevent school leaders from fostering safe and productive learning environments.
Antwan Wilson, the former D.C. Public Schools chancellor, testified against an earlier version of the bill while he still led the system, saying teachers and principals should have more discretion in how they discipline students.
“In most cases, the behavioral approach in the bill is what our principals and school leaders strive for in their buildings,” Wilson said at a hearing this year. “But sometimes in cases unique to an individual school, unique to a student and unique to the day, we have to make decisions for student safety and to maintain a positive learning environment that do not align with the limitations prescribed in the bill.”
Sharra Greer — policy director at the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group that provides free legal services to D.C. children and their families — said the bill is necessary in a city that suspended more than 7,000 traditional public and charter school students, or 7.4 percent of all students, in the 2016-2017 academic year.
According to city data, out-of-school suspensions for behavior that was not violent account for more than 60 percent of all suspensions.
The Children’s Law Center has represented clients who have emotional and learning disabilities and who it says have been removed from school for nonviolent behavior out of their control.
“This is enormously important for D.C.,” Greer said. “The link between suspensions and bad academic outcomes is really clear.”
A 2017 Washington Post analysis found that D.C. Public Schools did not properly document suspensions, and at least seven of the system’s 18 high schools have kicked out students for misbehaving without calling it a suspension — and in some cases even marked them present.
“As we grapple with high numbers of students in high school who are not on track to graduate,” Grosso said, “we must take into account the detrimental effects of these discipline practices, which increase a student’s chance of failing class or dropping out altogether.”