From left of table, Dr. Wanda M. Billingsly, Sukien Luu, and Jennifer Harris discuss federal and state law on school discipline. • Photo by Danish Mehboob
From left of table, Dr. Wanda M. Billingsly, Sukien Luu, and Jennifer Harris discuss federal and state law on school discipline. • Photo by Danish Mehboob

State commissions for people of color along with the federal White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders hosted an education roundtable for over 50 attendees at El Centro De La Raza to inform and hear about the latest impact student discipline has on students, families and educators.

The Education Roundtable public meeting held on Jan 30 intended to address the effects of disciplinary action on students of color. Focusing on concerns from 2015 included hiring practices, expulsion and suspension rates, and the school-to-prison pipeline, community members said many concerns remain unaddressed.

Audience attendees, like Queen Pearl, said they felt that expulsions and suspensions are the primary issues. They’re steps on the way into the juvenile justice system, which is one of the biggest problems in Washington State education, Pearl said.

James B. Smith, a presenter from the Education Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee (EOGOAC), said “the highest number of students sent to juvenile justice systems is in Washington State. Four percent of students [were] suspended between 2014 and 2015. … That’s thousands of kids.”

A report by The News Tribune in 2015 said Washington was the number one state for jailing non-criminal children.

EOGOAC’s role is to recommend policies to the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction to address the achievement gap.

Data is difficult

Data is difficult to collect in Washington, according to Mike Brunet, a presenter at the education roundtable and attorney at law firm Garvey Schubert Barer. Public requests are needed to collect data from school districts in the state, Brunet said, while some school districts weren’t even tracking data.

Brunet said that only 60 percent of school districts tracked student discipline, and 30 percent tracked data on whether suspended students had access to educational resources.

Other attendees were concerned about even earlier factors affecting students entering the juvenile justice system, including allocation of funding, racial hirings, and school detentions leading to missing time from class.

“Some disciplinary events are not even recorded in the data like lunch and after-school detentions and being sent out of class. Being send out of class takes out of the student’s education time, but it’s not recorded,” Brunet said.

On the surface, Washington may seem to be doing better in some statistics including state testing, but there is still an evident racial disparity.

According to Brunet, there is a two-and-a-half percent greater likelihood that Asian American students would be disciplined compared to their white peers, and a three-percent greater likelihood for African American students.

“The data doesn’t tell the story on racism and discipline,” James said.

Zer Vue, commissioner at the Council on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA), explained that there are also cultural differences between Asian American students and their white peers.

“Some Asians don’t speak up about these issues … they don’t feel like they can or have to,” Vue said.

In a small-group discussion portion of the meeting, participants and presenters explored personal experiences to give everyone a chance to add to the conversation.

“It’s not the color of the teacher, it’s the age of the teacher,” one participant said. “It didn’t matter where you came from, you had to conform to the way things were in the United States. The teacher trained 30 years ago was taught to make every kid the same.”

“I hear you, that it’s not always about race, but it is as well,” Vue responded.

Many attendees spoke passionately about the need for competency tests for teachers in their districts. “We need more effective culturally diverse teachers in the classroom,” Smith said.

Wanda Billingsly, a panelist representing the state Council on African American Affairs (CAAA) and a member of EOGOAC, talked about other options available to address communication issues with teachers on disciplinary practices. Billingsly introduced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which is a proactive approach to improving behavioral support and social cultures for students.

The Technical Assistance Center on PBIS is a federal resource to help states establish and sustain the PBIS framework, which helps to ensure parents and teachers come into agreement on disciplinary actions. This helps to facilitate conversations on ideological beliefs regarding student discipline between adults, Billingsly said. Funding is available for states and districts to implement PBIS practices.

At the roundtable, Billingsly pointed out some of the flaws and effectiveness among teachers in Washington. Flaws included teachers labeling children, blaming parents, asking for unwarranted apologies and excluding students from conversation. Effective methods started with reinforcing social skills in students.

Panelist Jennifer Harris, a policy/legal analyst with the Washington State Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO), offered these suggestions for parents involved in disciplinary situations with schools and their children:

• Insist on addressing challenging behavior early on with the teachers by scheduling meetings. Practice intentional communication with the school.

• Find the core issues and reasons for challenging behavior then address them.

• Document the process and save what was said in the meeting with teachers.

• Talk to the child.

• Know your rights and your child’s rights, and look up any unclear information on the OMBUDS page.

“A child’s perspective is important to know in the situation,” Harris said.

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