King County schools reduce expulsions and suspensions but disparities persist

From 2013 to 2017, Highline School District reduced the Black-white discipline gap by 4.9% — the largest decline in King County [click to expand].

This week a commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recommended rescinding Obama-era guidance to prevent discrimination in school discipline for minor, nonviolent offenses . Immediately after the announcement, Washington state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) countered that Washington state would continue with its efforts to reduce disproportionality in school discipline – primarily by disability status, race, and ethnicity.  According to the latest available data (from the 2016-2017 school year), the disciplinary rate for students in Special Education was 3.6% above the state average; for African American students, the difference was +3.9%; and for Hispanic students the difference was +0.6%.

“This is an equity issue,” said Washington Superintendent Chris Reykdal. “Each day a student misses class for disciplinary purposes is a day they miss learning. The bottom line is this: Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline.”

Earlier this year, The Atlantic described the ups and downs of the Highline School District’s new approach to discipline (see chart above for disciplinary trends). Although each district’s approach will be different, the Washington state Legislature heeded the 2014 federal guidance by passing legislation in 2016 “to help close opportunity gaps in learning.”  To help schools comply with the law, OSPI updated school discipline rules earlier this year. Statewide, progress has already been made.

Between the 2012-2013 and 2016-17 school years, Washington schools have experienced:

  • a 0.6% reduction in discipline rate for all students (from 4.1% to 3.5%)
  • a 0.7% reduction in the discipline rate for Special Education students (from 7.8% to 7.1%)
  • a 2.3% reduction in the Black/White difference in disciplinary rates (from 6.7% to 4.4%)
    • a 2.8% reduction in the discipline rate for Black students (from 10.2% to 7.4%)
    • a 0.5% reduction in the discipline rate for white students (from 3.5% to 3.0%)
  • a 0.4 point reduction in the ratio of Black to white students disciplined (from 2.9-to-1 in 2013 to 2.5-to-1 in 2017)
  • a 0.9% reduction in the discipline rate for Hispanic students (from 5.0% in 2013 to 4.1% in 2017)

How do King County schools compare? Using data from the OSPI website, the following table shows 2013-2017 changes and 2017 discipline rates for Washington state and King County. Data were available for 18 of 19 King County school districts. For easy comparison, data cells are colored blue if they show changes or rates that were as good as or better than those in Washington state; yellow indicates that changes or rates were worse than those for the Washington overall.

From 2013 to 2017, rates of suspensions and expulsions declined in 13 of 18 King County school districts (change in WA state rate = -.6%).

  • The largest declines were in Highline (-4.0%) and Kent (-2.9%) districts.
  • All but two of the declines were at least as large as the -.6% statewide decline.
  • Overall disciplinary rates did not decline in Enumclaw, Issaquah, Vashon, Snoqualmie Valley, and Riverview. In all of these districts except Enumclaw, the 2017 discipline rate was lower than the 2017 rate for the state.
  • Despite declines in discipline rates from 2013 to 2017, rates in 4 districts (Seattle, Federal Way, Renton, and Tukwila) exceeded the 2017 state discipline rate.

Rates of suspensions and expulsions for special education students declined in 13 of 18 King County districts (change in WA state rate = -0.7%).

  • The largest declines for Special Education students were in Highline (-7.3%), Kent (-6.2%), Bellevue (-6.1%), and Seattle (-4.1%).
  • All declines in King County districts were larger than the -.7% statewide decline.
  • Disciplinary rates for Special Education students did not decline in Issaquah, Vashon, Enumclaw, Riverview, and Snoqualmie Valley. In all these districts, however, the 2017 rate was lower than the 2017 rate for the state.
  • Despite declines in discipline rates among Special Education students between 2013 and 2017, the 2017 rates in Federal Way and Renton exceeded the 2017 state rate for Special Education students.

To avoid artificial inflation of percentages due to small numbers, we excluded districts with fewer than 100 Black students from comparisons of (a) 2013-to-2017 changes in the Black-white discipline gap and (b) calculations of the 2017 ratios of Black-to-white discipline rates. Districts with fewer than 100 Black students (with 2017 counts in parentheses) were: Enumclaw (35), Mercer Island (64 in 2015; no data for 2016 or 2017), Riverview (20), Snoqualmie Valley (57), and Vashon (no data for Blacks in any year).

The disciplinary gap between Black and white students declined in 11 of 13 King County districts with ≥100 Black students [change in WA state Black/white disciplinary gap = -2.3%]

  • In 6 of those districts, the decline in the Black-white disciplinary gap exceeded the statewide decline.
  • The largest declines in the Black-white gap were in Highline (-4.9%), Bellevue (-3.9%), Seattle (-3.3%), and Kent (-3.1%) districts.
  • Despite declines in the Black-white disciplinary gap, the size of the 2017 gap exceeded the state gap in Kent, Seattle, Federal Way, and Renton.
  • Districts where the Black-white disciplinary gap did not decline were Tukwila (+3.7%) and Issaquah (+1.4%). The size of the 2017 gap in Tuikwila exceeded the state gap.

Despite many improvements in disciplinary rates in King County districts, the ratio of Black to white students who were disciplined in 2017 exceeded the state’s 2.5-to-1 ratio in 5 of the 13 districts for which data were available.  Only 5 school districts had 2017 Black/white disciplinary ratios lower than 2-to-1.

  • Two of the 5 districts with Black/white disciplinary ratios below 2-to-1 in 2017 (Lake Washington and Northshore) also had ratios below 2-to-1 in 2013.
  • Tukwila’s Black/white disciplinary ratio rose from 1.3-to-1 in 2013 to 2.3-to-1 in 2017.
  • In Bellevue, Highline, and Tahoma, 2017 Black-to-white ratios below 2-to-1 reflected improvement between 2013 and 2017.

With this week’s announcement the state made it clear that, although generally promising, progress toward equity is just beginning. While districts like Highline began exploring alternatives to expulsion and out-of-school suspension as early as 2013, others have maintained zero-tolerance policies that lead to suspension even for minor infractions. Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, districts will have to eliminate zero-tolerance approaches that mandate suspension or expulsion for any behavior other than firearms violations. According to Superintendent Reykdal, OSPI will continue “enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline.”