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Vancouver Public Schools takes it slow on AG report on discipline

Vancouver Public Schools isn’t saying much in response to an Attorney General’s Office report detailing disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for some students of color and students with disabilities. Instead, district officials say, they’re waiting until early next year, when a consultant the district hired is supposed to release more detailed findings.

“To rush out and have a conversation does not seem to be wise,” said Marilee Scarbrough, general counsel for the school district.

An Attorney General’s Office investigation revealed the district is keeping black, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Native American students out of school at higher rates than their white peers. Students with disabilities are also excluded from school more than their non-disabled peers. The investigation also revealed that the district failed to review disproportionate discipline rates to determine whether they’re the result of discrimination, which is required under state law.

Under order by the Attorney General’s Office, the district hired Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, to examine the district’s data and policies. The three-year contract is slated to cost up to $150,000.

The contract was let before the attorney general’s investigation became public knowledge. District officials said they didn’t take the contract to the school board for public consideration. The school district’s policy is not to discuss contracts of less than $50,000 in public settings. The first year of the contract fell under that threshold — by one penny. Public records show the initial payment for the 2019-2020 school year is $49,999.99.

The district only revealed details of the investigation after it was asked by The Columbian for more information — but district officials say that wasn’t intentional. District spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said they thought the Attorney General’s Office would issue a press release, although that didn’t happen.

“We didn’t feel the need to bring it up,” Scarbrough said.

When asked if the district would discuss the findings in a public setting or otherwise engage with families before Losen’s report is released, Assistant Superintendent Mike Stromme said, “not necessarily.”

“It feels like we don’t have the whole picture,” Scarbrough added.

High rates ‘at every stage’

Public records obtained by The Columbian reveal limited additional details about the investigation, which has been ongoing since March 2018. That’s when the Attorney General’s Office first alerted the district of its inquiry, starting a year-long exchange over data and district policy.

On March 15, 2019, the Attorney General’s Office provided its findings to the district, saying Vancouver’s policies “led to high student discipline rates at every stage in the disciplinary process.”

In 2018, for example, more than 40 percent of black and Pacific Islander students were referred to principals for disciplinary action, compared with 16 percent of white students, according to the letter. The review also suggests that 28 percent of black students and 29 percent of Pacific Islander students were suspended that year, compared with 10 percent of white students.

The Attorney General’s Office also noted that up until 2015, the district had a “zero tolerance policy,” meaning students would be suspended or expelled for certain behaviors without exception. It’s a policy that’s largely fallen out of favor in public schools as unnecessarily severe and particularly harmful to students of color.

But eliminating that policy did not resolve the problems in Vancouver Public Schools.

“Even after the ‘zero tolerance policy’ was rescinded, VPS’s disciplinary policies and processes continued to have disproportionate impacts,” according to the report.

Stromme said the district is making progress on reducing student discipline rates over the last several years. But data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction shows mixed results. According to the department, 5.9 percent of the district’s students were suspended in the 2017-2018 school year. That rate has remained flat since 2014-2015, when 6.2 percent of students were excluded from school.

For students of color, the numbers vary more significantly. Students considered black or African American, for example, were excluded from school at a rate of 10.9 percent in 2017-2018, down from 13.8 percent in the 2014-2015 school year. Discipline rates for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, meanwhile, remained flat, with 11.5 percent of students suspended or excluded in 2017-2018 compared with 11.1 percent in 2014-2015.

Parents not surprised

Still, Stromme says the district is taking the issue of disproportionate discipline seriously, pointing to recently adopted discipline policies that focus on students’ underlying challenges rather than just the infractions.

“We’ve been doing this work, so how do we reflect on it and do it differently or better?” he said.

But two mothers of children with autism don’t buy that. Cara Bailey and Sarah McPartland have both withdrawn sons from Vancouver Public Schools after they say the district failed to provide them their students with the appropriate education as required by federal law. Both have since settled legal claims against the school district for an undisclosed amount of money.

And they say the results of the investigation — and the district’s response — are not surprising.

Bailey said while her son was never officially suspended, he was sent home multiple times when he was “having bad days.”

“You can’t suspend somebody due to the disability, and behavior is part of an autism diagnosis,” she said.

For McPartland, the results of the investigation were affirming. She called on the district to work with families to move forward.

“Make a plan to do better, work with people to do better, and try again,” she said. “Not say ‘We’ve done nothing wrong.’ I feel for the teachers, but no one is feeling for the families.”


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