School Discipline Is Racially Biased. That’s Why Seattle Is Banning Some Suspensions.

Research has shown that black students get disciplined more than white students, even at the youngest ages

Photo by CristinaMuraca/Shutterstock

Washington state’s education system has made national news several times in the past few months, mostly for not-awesome reasons: First, a court ordered the Legislature to pay $100,000 a day into a special education fund for failing to fund K–12 adequately; second, and semirelatedly, teachers in the state’s largest school district, Seattle, went on strike for eight days over cost-of-living raises and test-score-based teacher evaluations, among other issues.

But now, finally, there is some bright news out of Washington schools, partially as a result of strike negotiations: Last week, the Seattle School Board unanimously approved a one-year ban on out-of-school suspensions for elementary school students accused of nonviolent offenses like disruptive behavior and general disobedience. These infractions constitute roughly three-quarters of elementary school suspensions; the other quarter—for “assault, fighting, and threats of violence”—are all “considered exceptional misconduct and warrant an immediate suspension,” according to a Seattle Times report on the resolution.

The Seattle board’s decision to test out this ban stems from research that showed that suspensions reflect racial and socioeconomic divides, with nonwhite students disciplined at dramatically higher rates than their white classmates. From a lengthy report earlier this summer in the Seattle Times:

In Washington and nationally, schools have begun to reconsider their discipline policies because removing students from school rarely leads to improvements in behavior, and because the skew in suspension rates mirrors that achievement between students of different races.

 To wit, in Washington state:

Of 69,754 suspensions and expulsions meted out in 2013-14, the vast majority—78 percent—went to kids from low-income families, most of whom were students of color.

While Seattle’s suspension rate is lower than the state’s average, the racial discrepancies in discipline there are vast enough for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Education to be investigating the district’s treatment of black students, with no conclusions offered as yet.

Part of the problem is the much-reported-on shortage of nonwhite teachers in American classrooms: In Washington state, 87 percent of teachers are white, compared with 63 percent of students. In the U.S. as a whole, the student population is rapidly getting more diverse while the teaching force remains overwhelmingly—82 percent, at last count—white. 

Limiting suspensions, and finding more effective long-term alternatives to them, is happening in other states, too. Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning suspensions for kids in third grade or younger charged with “willful defiance.” And Minnesota—under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for racial disparities in discipline—also announced a moratorium on suspending preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders for “disruptive, disorderly, or insubordinate” (but not violent) behavior last year.

But will these measures make any dent in the school-to-prison pipeline, as their framers hope? As one Seattle board member put it, “We want to starve the pipeline at the source.” It’s certainly worth a try.