Suspend or expel kindergartners from school? Not in Tacoma

Kicking students out of school is a harsh action that shouts “you’re not wanted here,” echoing in the minds of many who are desperate to feel wanted. Too often, children are banished from the only academically challenging, socially nurturing and emotionally secure environment they’ve ever known.

Yes, some kids are chronically disruptive, and it’s frustrating for teachers and families when one student holds back the rest of the class. But suspension and expulsion are blunt instruments that should be a last resort in Washington public schools.

Using them on elementary school children as young as kindergarten, who are still figuring out classroom norms? That’s especially harmful.

This week the Tacoma School Board will take a welcome step by giving final approval to an updated student discipline policy, with a nudge from the Legislature and guidance from the state school superintendent’s office.

Among other things, the policy prohibits long-term suspension or expulsion of students in grades K-4, except for firearm possession. Short-term suspension can’t exceed 10 cumulative school days in any academic term.

If you don’t think kids at these tender ages are excluded from school, you’re mistaken. It happened to nearly 9,000 Washington kindergartners, first- and second-graders in 2016. The number of kindergartners banned from class nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016.

In Tacoma Public Schools last year, 4.1 percent of third-graders and 7 percent of fifth-graders had at least one suspension or expulsion, according to district data posted online. That might sound like a modest figure, but in raw numbers it means nearly 100 third-graders and 170 fifth-graders were ordered to stay away from school. And that doesn’t count all the students from other elementary grades who were given exclusionary discipline.

We have a hard time accepting so many young children need to be kicked out of school.

Fortunately, Tacoma educators have a hard time accepting it, too.

The new policy, which goes to the school board for a final vote Thursday, all but eliminates the use of suspension and expulsion against K-4 students, and sharply reduces it for all other grades.

It gets rid of categories of misbehavior that previously triggered automatic eviction from campus — such as fighting — and requires the circumstances of each offense to be considered. It mandates that schools attempt at least one other form of discipline before ousting a student, and it tightens the standard for schools to use emergency expulsion.

There’s nothing radical about this re-thinking of student discipline; it’s really a continuation of what educators in Tacoma and around the U.S. have done for years: identify practices that can lead to disproportionate punishment for poor children, special-needs youth and students of color.

In the 2013-14 school year, for example, 11.8 percent of black students in Tacoma schools were suspended or expelled, compared with 5.7 percent of Latino/Hispanic students and 5 percent of white students, according to state data.

And while overall use of such discipline has declined, kids banned from classrooms are now sitting out longer. Suspensions or expulsions of at least 10 days have increased in Tacoma over the last four years and comprised the largest share of exclusions in 2017-18.

Tacoma’s updated policy isn’t just the product of education bureaucracy; it’s shaped by the public, including more than 1,000 survey responses, and with input from advocacy groups such as the Black Collective.

Tacoma principals this summer went through training in how to carry out the changes. Other school districts in the region can’t be far behind.

Exercising restraint is crucial for all schools, but especially those with the youngest, most fragile students in their care. Classrooms are a sanctuary for children from broken homes, as well as those with autism and other learning/behavioral disorders. To have a shot at success in life, they need to get the message: “you’re wanted here.”