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The school to prison pipeline

The compliance review being conducted at Seattle Public Schools is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are minority students more likely to be suspended or expelled from schools in Seattle, it happens at districts across the state.

Once they’re out, students often find themselves struggling to return to a normal life at school. It’s a problem that’s been dubbed the “school to prison pipeline.”

Dakota Fox says her daughter had been bullied for months before the stress became too much for her to handle alone.

“He was inappropriately groping her, saying nasty and lewd comments, and on the bus trying to trip her,” says Fox.

Her daughter is an African-American student. She was an eighth grader at a middle school in Puyallup when this was happening last year. She is still enrolled at the same school, so Fox asked that we not use her daughter’s name.

Despite bringing the harassment to the attention of the bus driver and her teacher, Fox says the bullying continued. One day, when the strain became too much to handle, her daughter did something that Fox admits was inappropriate. She went to the nurse’s station and took one too many of her daily anti-seizure pills.

Fox received a call from the school administration notifying her that her daughter was having a hard time staying awake in class and would need to go home for the day. When she got to the school, Fox says she was told her daughter was being suspended.

“I don’t even know what’s going on, I just walked in the door, and you’re already telling me you’ve got to suspend her?” says Fox.

What started out as a 10 day emergency suspension, turned into 21 days and then to 90 days. Fox says her daughter was out of school from November through January.

At the suggestion of a friend, Fox contacted Team Child. They are a non-profit legal aid group for children with offices in King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and Yakima Counties. Attorney Hillary Behrman is their Statewide Legal Supervisor.

“By putting the kids out, we lose the opportunity for a learning moment,” says Behrman. “These are all children. The behavior wasn’t appropriate, but where’s the opportunity for learning?”

Not only was Fox’s daughter kept from the classroom, she also didn’t receive any help to keep up with her school work. It’s something Behrman says Team Child sees in most of the cases they have worked over the years.

“She went from an ‘A’ student all the way down to an ‘F’ student,” says Fox. “Now, she’s struggling to come back up.”

Fox says her daughter felt targeted and alienated from school. It’s a feeling shared by a 17-year-old Seattle high school student who also wished to remain anonymous. She says she was suspended when she had an argument with a teacher.

Also an African-American student, she says she had never even had detention before. After a disagreement in which she says there were no raised voices or cursing, she was called into the vice principal’s office and told she was being suspended.

“It was 11 days, but between those 11 days I had to take an anger management class and a behavior modification class my mom had to pay for,” says the Seattle student.

Behrman says this is not unusual. A relatively short suspension can turn into a long term displacement because of the additional requirements that take longer than the suspension period to complete.

In the case of the Seattle student, she was out of school for about two months toward the end of the 2011-2012 school year. Normally a B student, she missed her Algebra final and wound up failing the course. She has been forced to retake the class this year in order to meet the requirements for graduation.

Many students find the hurdles to graduation following a suspension too great to overcome. Team Child found that in the 2009-2010 school year, 771 Washington students cited a suspension or expulsion as the reason they dropped out of school.

Even before the U.S. Department of Education began its review of discipline at Seattle Public Schools, the district had created its own task force to address the issue of exclusionary discipline.

The Positive Climate Disciplinary Advisory Committee was formed early last year. Members are considering what steps might be taken to create more positive school environments that promote learning and keep kids in the classroom. One of the first issues they are studying is the “zero tolerance” approach to school discipline.

“Should it be discipline that’s punitive, which is the way a zero tolerance policy comes about, or should we be looking at discipline as being an opportunity to instruct?” asks Pat Sander, Executive Director of Coordinated School Health Services.

The Seattle School District recently compiled a list of the most common reasons given for suspensions and expulsions. They include infractions like “disobedience” and “disruptive conduct.”

Sander admits it is frequently difficult to say exactly what the student behavior was that led to the discipline. It is even more difficult to determine whether students at different schools are given the same consequence for similar behavior.

For children who are taken out of school, there is no system in place for keeping track of them or ensuring they are continuing their education at home.

“Each school is doing that on an individual basis of how they provide for the educational information the student may be missing while they’re away from the school site,” says Sander.

In compiling their report “Reclaiming Students,” Team Child received information from 183 school districts across Washington State. They found students were given academic support in just 7 percent of the cases of long-term suspension and expulsion. This could include homework sent home, online schooling or tutoring help.

Team Child is among a group of organizations supporting a pair of measures in the legislature designed to better track and support students facing removal from the classroom.

Washington State House Bill 1680 passed on a vote of 54 to 44 and has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. It requires schools to collect data on students suspended and expelled and ensures students receive education services during the time they are out.

Senate Bill 5244 passed on a unanimous vote and was referred to the House Education Committee. It also requires schools to collect data, and it adds time limits to suspensions and expulsions. Under SB 5244 schools would also have to create a reentry plan for students to help them come back into a regular school environment.

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