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How The Washington Post examined suspensions in D.C. schools

As schools around the nation have been under pressure to reduce suspensions, seven of 18 high schools in the District’s traditional public school system have kicked students out of school for misbehaving without calling it a suspension, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Some D.C. high schools reported only a small fraction of suspensions

Here’s how The Post carried out the reporting of the story:

In February 2017, reporters submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to D.C. public schools. The records request sought any emails or other documents that included “do not admit” or “suspension” lists naming students who were suspended, not allowed in a school building or told to return with a parent to be let back into school.

The Post requested these documents for all DCPS high schools for each day during January 2016 and January 2017. The Post limited its review to a single month in the past two schools years to expedite data collection.

Sources had previously told The Post that these documents are often called “do not admit” or “suspension” lists, and they are emailed out to teachers and staff members. In its request, The Post noted that the lists may have other names.

Additionally, The Post requested the attendance record for each student that appears on the daily lists.

Four months later, D.C. public schools returned emails from seven high schools containing the lists, along with the corresponding attendance records for that day.

In 2016, there were seven schools with suspension lists: Cardozo, Dunbar and Washington Metropolitan, Coolidge, Eastern, Luke C. Moore and Woodson. There were 19 school days that month, but DCPS did not release a list from every school for each day. It is unclear whether the lists were not sent to staff or whether they were not released to The Post. For example, DCPS released lists from Cardozo for only four days, but a staff member separately provided The Post with a list for 15 days that month.

DCPS released lists for Cardozo, Dunbar and Washington Met for January 2017.

The lists show that in 2016, students spent a total of 406 days in suspension. Student names were redacted to protect their privacy, so it’s unclear how many students were on the lists because one student could have been suspended for multiple days.

These are some examples of the lists.

While the emailed lists say that students have been suspended, attendance records show that those suspensions often were not recorded. Instead, students were marked in other ways.

DCPS has two databases, one to track student behavior referrals and another that tracks absences. If a suspension is officially recorded, the discipline system automatically overrides the attendance record to show that a student was absent because of a suspension. A DCPS spokeswoman said if a student’s attendance record is marked “present,” the discipline system does not override that record.

DCPS laid out the record-keeping process in a response to a parent’s complaint about unofficial suspensions, which was obtained by The Post:

The District utilizes a system called the Student Behavior Tracker (SBT) to collect and maintain valid student behavior/discipline data. ASPEN is the platform DCPS utilizes to hold student records such as attendance, grades, transcripts, class schedules, etc.
When a student is being suspended, the student is marked absent in ASPEN; the students’ suspension/discipline information is then entered into the SBT. A report is populated with suspension data for each day, which automatically feed into ASPEN to mark the absence as excused and add the suspension/disciplinary reason to the record.

Click here to download all the data The Washington Post obtained for this story.

The charts included in this story have been updated to note that they deal only with suspensions included on the emailed suspension lists. They also have been clarified to show that they reflect the number of days students spent in suspension, not the number of separate suspensions.