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Some D.C. high schools are reporting only a fraction of suspensions

Dunbar High is one of seven schools that underreported suspensions in the past two years, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

D.C. Public Schools has reported a dramatic decline in suspensions at a time when school systems around the country have been under pressure to take a less punitive approach to discipline. But a Washington Post analysis shows that at least seven of the city’s 18 high schools have kicked students out of school for misbehaving without calling it a suspension and in some cases even marked them present.

In the past two years, at least seven high schools sent daily messages to staff listing students who had misbehaved and were not permitted to enter the building, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. But attendance records show that only a fraction of those cases were officially recorded as suspensions.

While some students barred from school were marked as present, others were marked as attending an “in-school activity” or absent without an excuse. In at least one case, a suspended student was wrongly marked “unexcused absent” so many times that she was summoned to truancy court, according to her lawyer.

DCPS says suspensions drop­ped from 11,078 in 2013-2014 to 6,695 in 2015-2016 — a 40 percent reduction.

School officials stand by their numbers and say they’ve increasingly addressed misbehavior with “restorative justice” practices, in which students stay in school and are coached to work through conflicts. Education experts say suspensions do little to resolve problems underlying bad behavior and can lead to alienation, dropping out and, eventually, collision with the juvenile justice system.

But now, some education advocates are questioning whether DCPS has truly reduced suspensions.

Suspensions and expulsions in D.C. schools decrease, but racial disparities persist

“What this tells us is that DCPS is systemically pushing kids out without a trace,” said Eduardo Ferrer, executive director of DC Lawyers for Youth, an advocacy group. “I am very concerned that the data that has been presented publicly, showing that suspensions have decreased, is not valid.”

Ferrer represented the student who was referred to truancy court for racking up unexcused absences when she was suspended. She was told that she could not return to school unless she was accompanied by a parent, and her three-day suspension turned into three weeks because her parents worked and could not make it to the school, Ferrer said. The prosecutor dropped the truancy charge.

In March, a month after The Post’s inquiries, Instructional Superintendent David Pinder warned principals that he was aware some schools were trying to “hide” suspensions.

“This is inappropriate, unprofessional and fraudulent,” Pinder wrote to leaders of 11 schools he oversees, in an email obtained by The Post. “Such practices, if substantiated, would lead to disciplinary action.”

But in a statement, DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson stood by the school system’s data.

“We are proud of the 40 percent reduction in suspensions that we have seen, especially at schools that use restorative practices, and we will ensure that every student is in school or formally suspended,” he said.

Jane Spence, the school system’s deputy chief of secondary schools, characterized any underreporting as limited to a fraction of the district’s 115 schools. “I don’t want to condemn the vast majority of our schools based on the actions of a few,” she said.

Still, Spence called The Post’s findings “concerning” and said DCPS officials are examining data from the schools where suspensions appear to have been underreported: Cardozo Education Campus, Dunbar High, Washington Metropolitan High, Coolidge High, Eastern High, Luke C. Moore High and Woodson High. She did not commit to a comprehensive review of data from all schools to determine whether a broader problem exists.

The district’s goal is to help students learn how to deal with emotions so they don’t reach the level of misbehavior that requires a suspension, she said. But when suspensions occur, she said, they “should absolutely be accurately documented.”

Spotlight on school discipline

Schools nationwide have faced pressure to reduce suspensions and expulsions in recent years, especially after the Obama administration began investigating districts where suspensions disproportionately affected black, Latino and disabled students.

From 2011-2012 to 2013-2014, suspensions nationwide fell 20 percent, according to federal data.

Federal data shows persistent racial gaps in discipline

The Post sought to understand the drop in suspensions at DCPS by requesting any emails to staff at the city’s 18 high schools — including comprehensive high schools, “selective” schools that admit students based on certain criteria and alternative programs — that contained a “suspension” or “do not admit” list naming students not allowed in the building on the day the email was sent.

The Post also requested attendance records for each student appearing on a list. The records request allowed The Post to compare de facto suspensions — when students were told they could not come to school — to suspensions that were recorded in school databases.

The Post limited its review to just two months — January 2016 and January 2017 — to expedite the records request.

The school system found and released lists from three schools in 2017 — Dunbar, Cardozo and Washington Metropolitan — and from those schools and four more in 2016: Coolidge, Eastern, Luke C. Moore and Woodson.

The school system did not find lists at the remaining high schools; it is unclear whether any of those schools engaged in similar practices. For example, Ballou High names suspended students in internal email messages, but those lists are called “consequence” lists, and so school system officials did not provide them, because the officials searched only for “suspension” or “do not admit” lists.

The names of the students on the lists the school system did provide were redacted to protect their privacy.

But according to their corresponding attendance records, most suspensions were not reported. For example, the emails from the seven schools show that in January 2016, students spent a total of 406 days in suspension. Only 15 percent of those were officially recorded, the data shows.

Joyce Boyd’s daughter was one of those students whose suspensions were rarely properly recorded.

Boyd got used to the phone calls. Sometimes her cellphone would ring just hours after she dropped her daughter off at school. Other times, the calls came later in the day. Each time, Boyd said, administrators at Dunbar High had the same message: You need to pick your daughter up. She’s been suspended, and she can’t return to school for days.

“They told me just come and get her,” said Boyd, who spoke on the condition that her daughter not be named, to protect her privacy. “When I asked for it in writing, they said, ‘We don’t do that in high school.’ ”

Her daughter was suspended at least 12 times in the 2016-2017 school year, but only one suspension was officially recorded, according to a complaint that Boyd’s lawyer filed with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Boyd’s daughter receives special-education services, and under federal law, her suspensions are supposed to be reviewed to determine whether her misbehavior was related to her disability. In her pending complaint, Boyd alleges that those reviews did not occur when her daughter was unofficially suspended.

In January 2017, only 7 percent of suspensions listed in Dunbar’s daily emails to staff were recorded as suspensions in the school system’s database, records show. The vast majority of students on the daily suspension lists were marked present or absent without an excuse.

When asked for comment, Dunbar Principal Abdullah Zaki wrote in an email that he wanted to respond. A DCPS spokeswoman later said that he and other principals of schools named in this article declined to comment.

Joyanna Smith, the District’s ombudsman for public education — who serves as an independent advocate for parents — said she has intervened in cases in the past three years in which students had been unofficially suspended or proper procedures had not been followed.

“There is a push to lessen suspensions. In doing so, I think schools are reducing the suspensions formally but still excluding kids from the classroom,” Smith said.

Charter schools are not subject to the District’s public-records law and therefore were not included in The Post’s review. Charter schools are required to report suspensions and expulsions to the city government and to the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

While DCPS touted a 40 percent decline in suspensions from 2013-2014 to 2015-2016, the city’s charter schools saw a more modest drop of 16 percent.

Training for a new approach

D.C. schools officials said they are working to train principals to accurately track suspensions and help school leaders engineer a major shift in their approach to discipline.

Forty schools are now participating in a systemwide initiative to employ alternatives to suspensions, and others have received training in restorative practices, an approach to build rapport between students and staffers and address misbehavior through community conversation rather than suspensions.

When suspensions weren’t working, this high school opted for a new approach

“We’re actually really proud of our suspension efforts this year,” Spence said. “We worked really deeply to move away from being reactive to student behavior and being proactive instead.”

Cardozo is one of the schools that employs alternatives, and according to the school system’s official figures, its suspension rate plummeted between 2014-2015 and 2015-2016.

But more than a year ago, Cardozo science teacher Chris Obermeyer tried to alert his superiors as well as D.C. Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large) that suspensions were not properly documented during the 2015-2016 school year.

Central office staffers told him they would investigate his concerns, but he was also rebuked for repeated questions about discipline procedures at Cardozo.

Grosso, who chairs the council’s education committee, said in an interview that he may introduce legislation to address inaccurate reporting.

DCPS officials told The Post that they addressed the problem at Cardozo in 2016 but would not elaborate.

In January, one-third of suspensions at Cardozo were not documented, records show.

Obermeyer, who resigned from his teaching position last year, said the school district should be “ashamed.”

“It’s an absolute shame that after bringing these issues to the attention of the school administration . . . and city council, nothing has changed,” he said. “Our young people deserve better.”