Disruptive conduct, ‘other behavior’ are leading causes of school discipline

Disruptive conduct and undefined “other behavior” are the top reasons why public school students around Washington, including in Pierce County’s four largest districts, are suspended from school, according to new data released this week.

Fewer students are suspended for drugs, alcohol, weapons possession, bullying, fighting and other violence. But these types of incidents typically lead to longer suspensions — and marijuana often leads to the longest suspensions of all.

For the second time this year, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has released a set of discipline data. The information released this week shows how often students are suspended or expelled, and for which behaviors. It also shows how long suspensions last, on average, for different categories of behavior.

For example, statewide data show that about 3 percent of suspensions statewide are for using tobacco, while more than 6 percent are for marijuana use.

It’s another glimpse into the sometimes controversial practices that lead schools to remove students from the learning environment.

In May, the state offered a first batch of discipline data that showed how many students were suspended or expelled, and also included discipline data by race, gender, special education status and other delineators. That data documented the way discipline sometimes falls more heavily on the shoulders of some student groups, particularly African American students.

The new state data can also be broken down by racial and other groupings, and by school district. State officials want to help local districts recognize disparities, and understand underlying equity and civil rights issues.

“My hope is that this information will help districts think about ways to prevent discipline problems from happening in the first place,” State Superintendent Randy Dorn said in a news release.

Dorn, a former principal of Eatonville High School, acknowledges that prevention isn’t always possible. But he and other education leaders around the country are urging school districts to take a fresh approach to what happens after students are caught misbehaving.

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If we are not intentional, we never fix the problem

Jennifer Kubista, director of student life, Tacoma Public Schools

He urges them to look at alternatives schools can use to avoid removing students from the classroom. These tools include more training for teachers in classroom management, alternatives such as in-school suspension and a concept known as restorative justice, in which students are held accountable for the harm they cause — often by a “jury” of their peers.

Adds Dorn: “If removal is the only appropriate option, districts should keep students engaged while they’re out of the classroom to make sure their learning stays on track — and re-engage them when they return.”

Jennifer Kubista, director of student life for Tacoma Public Schools, said her district has begun working to revamp its discipline system. Merely suspending kids for misbehavior doesn’t change behavior, she said. Rather, it’s important to get to the root of what’s causing a student to act out.

In the 2013-14 school year, Tacoma launched its Whole Child Initiative, in conjunction with the University of Washington Tacoma. It’s based on the belief that kids can’t succeed at school unless they feel safe and rewarded there. And part of creating the cocoon of safety for kids is explicitly teaching them what good behavior looks like.

One positive result: School attendance has increased.

“You can really tell it’s working because kids are coming to school more,” Kubista said.

In Lakewood’s Clover Park School District, data show that the number of discipline incidents is comparable year to year, but the number of students involved in disciplinary incidents has increased.

My hope is that this information will help districts think about ways to prevent discipline problems from happening in the first place

Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction

“We are analyzing the data further and anticipate that the number of secondary students with disciplinary actions has declined and, because we have improved our elementary reporting process, the elementary student numbers increased from previous years,” said district spokeswoman Kim Prentice.

Beginning last school year, Clover Park began a program called Safe and Civil Schools, which emphasizes teaching positive behavior and support for students who misbehave.

Currently, there’s no uniform state system for how various behaviors are classified, so data can vary widely from district to district, and even from school to school, according to OSPI.

One example: In the Puyallup School District’s state data, nearly 46 percent of the behaviors fall into the catch-all category called “other.” (Statewide, the “other” category captures nearly 36 percent of all disciplinary actions.)

Puyallup spokesman Brian Fox explained that many of those offenses involve general misconduct and attendance issues. Both Fox and state officials explain that the system of categorizing student behaviors is an evolving one.

Kubista said Tacoma this year eliminated the “other” category in favor of more specific labels. She pointed to a category that Tacoma calls “physical aggression.” Sounds bad, right?

“Sometimes little kids can be physically aggressive, but they are not fighting,” she said. “We want to make sure we are capturing data that shows when a student is struggling behaviorally, and that we have a way to support that kid.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

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