Nearly two decades after it began tracking student discipline, Seattle Public Schools continues to struggle with a chronic problem: African American students are still far more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled.
The "discipline gap" persists even as the district drastically lowered the overall number of students who were expelled last year, new statistics show.
Compared with white students, African Americans were nearly twice as likely last year to receive short-term suspensions, lasting 10 or fewer days. Long-term suspensions were imposed on black students more than twice the time.
"We're still seeing a lot of disproportionality," said School Board member Darlene Flynn, chairwoman of Student Learning Committee. "That hasn't improved at all."
The disparity was investigated by the Seattle P-I in 2002 in a special report, "An Uneven Hand," which found that black students were being disciplined at much higher rates than students of other races -- and had been for at least two decades.
The district has made an effort in recent years to provide better training to teachers and administrators and focus on alternatives to suspending or expelling students. But short- and long-term suspension rates are virtually unchanged since 2000, and in some cases are higher.
Flynn said the district needs to do a better job of lowering discipline rates, especially for black and Hispanic students.
It's a daunting problem that has long frustrated district officials. Several task forces have been convened to study the problem and make recommendations -- recommendations that were rarely followed.
In its five-year strategic plan, approved last spring, the School Board formally set a goal of narrowing the discipline gap by 20 percent a year, starting in 2005-06.
"We're working on that; we're not ignoring it," said Ruth McFadden, who oversees district programs that address student discipline and truancy.
In recent years, some funding from Initiative 728 -- state money used to reduce class sizes and make other improvements -- has been used to give teachers and administrators more training in effective discipline measures and classroom management. The district hopes to land some sort of grant or more state funding to provide even more training.
There has also been a "big shift" in how discipline is meted out, McFadden said.
That change is reflected in the district's discipline standards, which were revised in 2004. They direct administrators to select the "least form of corrective action or punishment" necessary to change a student's behavior before resorting to a short-term suspension.
Nearly all first-time district offenses are now punished with some sort of school-based penalty, which varies depending on the student's grade level and the offense. For a minor transgression, an elementary school student might lose recess privileges for a week, while a high school student could receive detention or a shift cleaning up in the school lunchroom.
Schools can still expel a student if he or she commits a crime, even if it is a first offense, but administrators have tried to cut down on automatic expulsions.
Flynn firmly believes that there is a link between the discipline gap and the academic achievement gap.
Many students who are suspended or expelled are already on weak ground academically, she said, and keeping them away from school isn't going to help them. In some cases, it could push them to drop out.
"If we're not connecting the dots between academic success and academic suspensions, we're missing a very logical connection," Flynn said.
The solution might be to do away with suspensions and expulsions, except for extreme cases, she said. "Maybe this needs to go the same way as corporal punishment."
It wouldn't be the first time the district has banned those measures. In 1986, following a task force's recommendation, then-Superintendent William Kendrick instituted a moratorium on suspensions and expulsions in elementary schools.
The move was criticized by some teachers and administrators, who complained that the district took away effective disciplinary methods without providing enough alternatives for dealing with problem students. Zero-tolerance policies gradually returned, which led discipline rates to rise again.
While she would like to lower her school's discipline rates, Principal Bi Hoa Caldwell at Aki Kurose Middle School said eliminating suspensions and expulsions isn't the answer.
More than a quarter of Aki Kurose students were suspended last year, one of the highest rates among Seattle middle schools. But Caldwell said taking away the option of suspending students could send them a message that there are no serious consequences for misconduct.
"Children need to understand that there is a bottom line," she said.
Teachers and administrators, however, should be sensitive to why students are misbehaving, she said. Often, students who are struggling academically would rather act up and be the class clown than risk looking stupid in front of classmates.
Teachers need to make sure those students are receiving extra help if they need it, "but if they're doing this continually, we can't keep them in class to continue to disrupt," Caldwell said.
Until a few years ago, Aki Kurose had an in-house suspension program that kept misbehaving students out of the classroom, but made sure they stayed in school. "As funding has gone down, those kinds of options have gone away," she said.
The school this year has logged far fewer referrals -- precursors to suspensions. Caldwell attributes that drop largely to more professional development opportunities for teachers.
McFadden and a colleague have been studying schools around the district that have had similar success in lowering discipline rates or closing the gap.
While they have visited only a handful of schools so far, a theme is emerging, she said: The administrators discipline all students who misbehave, but take cultural differences into account when deciding on a punishment.
"It doesn't mean they're not disciplining a child of color because they're a child of color; it means they keep it in mind," she said. "It is not a case of 'justice is blind,' it's a case of, 'what is the most ... fair way to discipline this student so they will change their behavior?' "
That seems like a step in the right direction to Donald Felder, a former educator who is active in the Seattle chapter of the non-profit Black Child Development Institute.
Talking to students when they break the rules -- creating "teachable moments" -- sometimes can do more to improve future behavior than a suspension, he said.
Educators should also be held accountable for their role in the discipline gap, said Germaine Covington, the Seattle group's president. At the school where the disparity is high, for example, teachers and administrators should be targeted for additional training.
Attempts by Seattle Public Schools to solve the problem clearly aren't working, she said.
"They've done some changes around the edges, but clearly haven't addressed the heart of the situation," she said.
"Somehow, we've got to turn that around."