On July 25, 2012, the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC-DCSL) hosted a Public Documentation Forum on school discipline. This event, sponsored by TimeBanks USA and the Racial Justice Initiative (RJI), provided a community exchange among students, families, experts and advocates, public officials, concerned community leaders, civil rights advocates and the public.
Prof. Edgar Cahn, a Distinguished Professor of Law at UDC-DCSL as well as founder of TimeBanks USA, and Cynthia Robbins, Co-Leaders of the Racial Justice Initiative, gave opening remarks. Prof. Cahn told the audience that D. C. school board policies say discipline should be treated in a progressive and appropriate manner, but teachers, under tremendous pressure to deal with troubled students, often find such enlightened practices difficult to implement.
Initial statements were provided by hearing officers and opening witnesses. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton asked, "Why are so many of our children out on the street unable to go to school and why are we unable to come up with better alternatives than what we have done?” She praised the Racial Justice Initiative for seeking alternatives to school suspension. Prof. Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Chair of Public Interest Law at UDC-DCSL, said once a child has been pushed out of public school it reduces his or her ability to participate in our democracy and that schools must focus on disciplinary measures that facilitate learning and foster community building initiatives. He closed by saying he hoped school boards would examine school discipline policy so that students get a quality public school education. Ayesha Baker, a Friendship Collegiate Public Charter School Graduate and current college student, talked about her arrest after a fight. She said the justice system should focus on support rather than imprisonment and that she was fortunate to have a judge who gave her a year of probation and counseling instead of incarceration. Steven Teske, Chief Judge at the Clayton County Georgia Juvenile Court, then talked about how he watched graduation rates plummet as juvenile crime rates increased. Judge Teske said, "We had to stop arresting kids in Clayton County, GA. Kids, school, law enforcement, social services had to begin talking to each other. We began to assess the chronically disruptive kids instead of just punishing them.” The result, not surprisingly, was that working to minimize arrests of disruptive kids helped to keep them in school and led to higher graduation rates.
Panel 1 focused on the current state of school discipline. Tracy Velasquez, Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, spoke first. She said the District of Columbia should change its approach to school discipline since more education has been shown to decrease violent crime. Richard Pohlman, Chief of Operations & Policy at the E. L. Haynes Public Charter School, said he changed policies in his school to avoid harsh disciplinary measures, keeping the tiers of discipline but softening the language for administrators to allow more choices other than automatic expulsion. Kaitlin Banner, LL.M. ’12 and a clinical supervisor at the UDC-DCSL Took Crowell Institute for At-Risk Youth – the School of Law’s Juvenile Justice and Special Education Law Clinic, said having each school choose its own disciplinary processes leads to disparate results. In practice, D.C. Public Schools have a good system of laws but administrators are not complying with their own regulations. Additionally, charter schools are allowed to define their own rules, with the result being that schools are overusing expulsion for minor infractions. Nicole Mortorano, co-author of "Kept Out: Barriers to Meaningful Education in the School-To-Prison Pipeline,” spoke about her research on the school system in Los Angeles. She said some schools were illegally telling students they couldn’t reenter and that students sometimes waited weeks or months to reenter schools. Eddie Ferrer, Chief Operating Officer for DC Laywers for Youth, said schools rely heavily on exclusionary discipline practices that are often based upon false assumptions. Irvin Dallas, Board Member of Youth Court and a consultant to Chicago Public Schools, talked about students being disciplined multiple times for excessively talking, being late to class, wearing a hat to class, etc. Toussaint Tingling-Clemmons, a former D.C. Public School employee and youth advocate, said that he never received any training when he was hired as a school suspension coordinator at Stuart-Hobson Middle School. He said that for alternatives to work there must be buy-in from administrators and families.
Afterward, there was a Q&A for the first panel. Judge Teske asked the panelists, "What does it say that there are inconsistent practices in different schools?” Irvin Dallas said inconsistency means the system is broken, while Kaitlin Banner said students lose respect for the schools.
Due to time constraints, Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, spoke after the first panel rather than offering closing remarks. Pearson said he did not think there should be a uniform set of standards across charter schools. For him, the issues are whether school disciplinary policies are being faithfully implemented, and if there is a less aggressive way to implement the policy. He said charter schools are offering more transparency of data, implementing the laws that are already on the books and bringing together experts with schools and teachers who need the help. Prof. Wade Henderson commented that he wanted uniform standards for school discipline while charter schools could innovate in other areas. Scott Pearson replied that one of the strengths of charter schools is autonomy and that the problem is around the execution of existing laws. The other panelists said they hoped to do away with school expulsion altogether.
Afterward, Judge Teske asked Ayesha Baker for her thoughts on improving school disciplinary policies. Ayesha Baker said she hoped to get families on board with reforming school disciplinary policies since family dysfunction can cause a lot of problems.
After a brief break, the 2nd group talked more about the current state of school discipline. Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, ’96, now Director of Legal Services and Advocacy at the Advocates for Justice and Education (AJE), said disciplinary measures should be replaced with evidence based approaches. Tim Riviera, a Staff Attorney at AJE, said suspension is too easy to do, offering a story about a kindergarten student with autism who was suspended. Rebecca Brink, Senior Policy Attorney at the Children’s Law Center, noted two worrisome trends – students with disabilities being pushed out of school, and inappropriate suspensions of children. She said suspension or expulsion is not the right answer for elementary school children. Professor Joseph Tulman, Director of the Took Crowell Institute for At-Risk Youth, talked about a Texas study that found no race difference for mandatory expulsions; only disciplinary expulsions. He said we need a moratorium on expulsions since we know kicking a kid out of school does not work.
The 2nd panel convened to talk about alternatives to school discipline. Samantha Simpore, a Behavior Management Specialist at the Maya Angelou Academy, said she does a lot of positive reinforcement with high expectations. David Tansey, a Secondary Math Teacher at Dunbar High School, said that when his school was managed by a contractor it descended into chaos. He said teachers and students were treated as adversaries by the contactor, and that extracurricular activities were cut. He said school needs to have extracurricular activities so that students can learn social skills in addition to academic skills. Alana Greer, a Staff Attorney at the Advancement Project, talked about 2 cases where school disciplinary policies are changing for the better. Denver, CO schools rewrote their discipline code in 2008 to use restorative interventions while addressing racial disparities, and now focus on prevention strategies coupled with graduated discipline policies. Greer also said Baltimore, MD schools have instituted similar policies that offer an alternative to school discipline.
Prof. Wade Henderson then asked the panel if they believe there should be a moratorium on school expulsion. David Tansey agreed there should be. Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas said there should be a moratorium on low-level suspensions, while Prof. Tulman said we cannot address the issue without addressing the fundamental racism of the current system.
In response to another question Alana Greer said we do not give teachers adequate resources and that the emphasis on standardized tests through legislation like No Child Left Behind means students are coming home nauseous from taking so many tests. Judge Teske said there is a paradox where schools have compulsory attendance yet students can get kicked out for anything. Prof. Joseph Tulman said we cannot expect people to follow the law when it is not in their interest to follow it.
In closing, Prof. John Brittain said we should talk about legal strategies to address school expulsion. He said we should use "notice hearings" like these to prove indifference under the law (equal protection clause). Prof. Edgar Cahn said, "We cannot outsource the job of educating our kids." Cynthia Robbins closed by saying the Racial Justice Initiative will follow up with more public documentation hearings about school disciplinary policies.