Black students in Vancouver Public Schools are kept out of class longer than their white classmates, particularly for minor infractions such as disrupting class.
That’s according to an independent review of disciplinary practices, which concluded the district should stop suspending and expelling students in those cases altogether.
On Thursday, Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles, presented the first part of his findings on disproportionate discipline rates for some students of color and students with disabilities in the Vancouver district. The Attorney General’s Office last year ordered the district to review its disciplinary practices after finding it had been disciplining black, Native American, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian and disabled students at higher rates than their white or nondisabled peers.
Losen will be with the district for three years, offering findings and reflection on the district’s efforts to ease the problem of unequal suspensions and expulsions. The review is expected to cost the 22,500-student district $150,000.
“We’re going to get to the right place for the right reasons,” said Deputy Superintendent Mike Stromme, who is overseeing a district steering community on the issue. “We’re focused on changing that gap for all kids.”
In his initial recommendations, Losen suggested the district eliminate all out-of-school suspensions for minor and unclear infractions including failure to cooperate, disruptive behavior, cumulative violations, disturbance of school activities or possession of a cellphone. He also noted the district should review all suspensions that last longer than three days, effectively limiting the length of any given suspension.
Losen also recommended that the district hire as many as four full-time faculty to work with school staff to ensure discipline is handed out to help address the root causes of student behavior, not just punish it.
Losen is expected to present additional findings to the district’s equity steering committee next month.
Losen’s findings offered only a partial review of the district’s discipline rates, focused primarily on the gaps between suspension rates for black and white students. Losen noted he’s still waiting on additional data from the school district.
Among the key findings is that black students lose nearly four times as many days to suspension or expulsion as their white peers. Losen’s analysis, according to the report, determined that every 100 black students in the district missed 103 days of school. Every 100 white students, meanwhile, missed 26.9 days of school.
While white students lose equal or more instruction time than black students for serious offenses like bringing weapons to school, black students face more and longer discipline for vague offenses, such as failing to cooperate or disrupting class.
Losen’s report points out discrepancies between black and white students in a category of “cumulative violations,” defined by the district as “committing three or more minor infractions within a two-week period.”
“It’s possible, therefore, that some students are suspended on their third infraction and others suspended on their sixth, and conceivable that, in some classrooms, talking out of turn, a wisecrack, or creating a distraction could be grounds for removal from school,” Losen wrote.
Research suggests that punishment for these type of minor infractions can result from a teacher’s implicit bias, subconscious stereotypes that may make a person more likely to spot or punish infractions by students of color. Kent McIntosh, a University of Oregon professor who researches inequitable school discipline, told The Columbian last year that those biases can be particularly significant when educators have to make a nuanced call about a student’s behavior.
“You have to do the hard work around race and racism to get folks to reflect on their practice,” Losen said.
Suspensions can also have lasting impacts on students, contributing to higher high school dropout rates and incarceration rates as adults. That can lead to broader societal impacts, such as those highlighted by Losen and Russell Rumberger at the University of California Santa Barbara in a 2016 study. Forgone tax revenue from higher incomes that could have resulted from better educational experiences, coupled with higher reliance on social and health services, costs taxpayers an estimated $11 billion.
“Suspension is not intervention,” Losen said. “It’s just a punishment.”