Elaine Thompson / AP

Seattle School Board bans elementary school suspensions

Research showing that students of color are disproportionately punished prompted the Seattle board vote

The Seattle School Board voted Wednesday evening to stop suspending elementary school children for breaking rules, a move prompted by a growing body of research showing that students of color are disproportionately punished.

Seattle’s seven-member school board unanimously passed a resolution that would eliminate out-of-school suspensions at public elementary schools (PDF). The resolution calls on the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools to instead create plans for staff training and alternative disciplinary programs and to begin scaling back the use of suspensions in all grades.

The resolution is based on growing evidence that African-American, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native American children are suspended two or three times as often as their white and Asian-American peers. The same is true for children who are enrolled in special education or English-as-second-language programs, according to data crunched by UCLA and the University of Washington.

For example, Native American children were given 8.57 percent of all suspensions among Seattle students in kindergarten through the fifth grades in 2011-2012, even though they only made up 0.8 percent of the population. Black children, who comprised 16.5 percent of the population, were given 7.6 percent of the suspensions among K-5 students during that same school year. White children, on the other hand, made up 45.8 percent of the population but were issued just 1.09 percent of the suspensions, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Harium Martin-Morris, a member of the Seattle School Board, told Al Jazeera that he introduced the resolution to the board in July. Students who are suspended at a young age, he notes, are more likely to keep getting suspended as they get older, and are at risk of ending up behind bars in what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline. “Part of that is the criminalization of behavior that starts very, very early on,” Martin-Morris said. "This is a way to kind of stop, to break the cycle."

Seattle isn’t the first city considering an end to out-of-school suspensions for non-violent or minor offensesIn September 2014, California became the first state to pass legislation that limited schools’ ability to suspend children from school. That law is limited to suspensions for so-called “willful defiance,” and only applies to students in kindergarten through the third grade. School districts in BaltimoreLos AngelesMinneapolis and elsewhere have also made efforts to scale back the use of suspensions after finding that students of color were disproportionately targeted.

Jody McVittie, a program director at Sound Discipline, a Seattle-area nonprofit organization that trains schools and educators and has worked with Seattle Public Schools, says that many students who are suspended for misbehavior may have experienced poverty or abuse at home and may not have learned the proper skills to control their emotions.

“What is the child learning from being kicked out of school?” McVittie asked. “What we know is that the kids who misbehave struggle with some basic skills, and when we say to them, you don’t belong here, or we can’t handle you here, we’re not teaching those skills.”

Some school districts have tried to address that issue. The Oakland Unified School District in California, for example, has established a restorative justice program, to help children learn how to solve their conflicts.

McVittie, who supports the Seattle School Board proposition, told Al Jazeera that the best way to help kids learn to regulate their own behavior is through positive discipline — holding regular class meetings and teaching students collaborative problem-solving skills, or designating a “flip-out” space, where children can go to calm down. “For little kids, we have to do that over and over and over again,” McVittie said. “When we invest young in that process, they are more likely to succeed."

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