By Alice Doyel
Here are takeaways from a conversation with Rose Spidell, Senior Education Ombuds, Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO), part of the Washington State Office of the Governor.
Mission: OEO works with families, communities, and schools to navigate educational challenges and increase collaborative problem-solving so that every student can fully participate in and benefit from public K-12 education in Washington.
Vision: OEO envisions an equitable public education system that is responsive and accountable to every student in the State of Washington.
School administrators usually decide on school exclusions. Unless it is an emergency, they always need to do an informal conference with the student first. That should include a notice to the student saying: This is what I understand you did and I see that as a violation of the rules. I am considering a suspension. It should include an opportunity for the student to share their perspective.
The new state rules now add: If the school is considering a short-term suspension, they need to give the student the opportunity to call a parent to participate in that informal conference. The rule regarding potential long-term suspensions or expulsions is that schools must attempt to call the parent for that informal conference with the student.
These conferences previously were so informal that you might not recognize them as conferences. Now when schools are having those initial conversations with students, they need to give the opportunity for parent involvement right away. The new law adds a level of formality by saying we are going to give you, the student, the chance to call your parent. It will put a bit of a brake on things by slowing down the process.
Ideally, slowing down the process will give administrators the opportunity to hear more fully from students, to have the parents hear as well, and then everyone can think about the decision. The administrator can think maybe we can take another approach. There is the opportunity to pause, consider other options than suspension.
If the administrator still makes the decision to suspend, it does not take away the opportunities for additional appeals after the decision is made. These include formal appeal to the superintendent, a hearing officer, or a discipline appeal council, and further appeal to the school board or discipline appeal council.
We put this information in our updated school discipline manual, including a reference to the section in the new state rules showing where they come from. We expect that families can share information with their administrators.
It can be very intimidating for a student to be confronted by an authority figure with something that they may have done wrong. This process of involving families early as pause points, moments to pause in this decision-making process, and moments to reflect on the decisions are helpful for kids.
The administrators sometimes feel that is an affront to their authority if there is disagreement regarding their decision. They do not confront the students with something if they do not believe they are right about it. Conversely, we do not want students to be intimidated into “confessing” to something that they feel is not true. As parents, as teachers, as principals, we have to figure out how to hear from kids and help kids appropriately and respectfully say back to us what their perspective really is, which might be different from ours. It is a challenge for kids to speak up. It is a challenge for adults in positions of authority to allow that we might have gotten it wrong.
After the school exclusion, there is re-engagement planning, petitions for readmission. These give decision-makers opportunities to pause and reflect on their decisions. Was this a suspension that needed to happen in order to ensure appropriate and safe activity within the school? Is this a suspension where we are providing supports and continuing work with the student? When the student comes back, have they learned the lesson that we wanted them to?
Additionally, is this suspension influenced by implicit bias, or general bias? We can take a moment in each individual situation to consider what the data shows is happening to kids of color and kids with disabilities. Is this a suspension decision that should be made or not? Is it a decision that is going to make the school safer and run more smoothly? And then think about the individual student involved? How can this decision be made in a manner that helps the student get back to school in a way that is going to be more successful?
I would love to see the evolution and development of a culture that welcomes that opportunity to review and reflect. I think that the conversation for this needs to be community-wide.
I do not envy the challenge of a principal’s job. They are challenged to figure out what is best and most effective for this one student who has broken a rule. It may be more effective to support that kid by keeping them close rather than removing them from the school setting. At the same time, the principal owes a responsibility to the kids who were targeted by the student’s action or the other kids in the class whose education might be disrupted. The principal is going to hear from families saying: Are you taking steps that keep my kids safe, and in a place where they are able to learn? I think without having a community-wide conversation, we are going to end up with principals being pushed between these very intense competing pressures.
We need to have this big conversation about the ways that educators can most effectively help educate the whole student body and keep everyone safe. If a child were targeted as a victim of harassment bullying, a parent might want to know that a student targeting them was suspended for two or three weeks. What is harder to see is that at the end of the three weeks, and if we have not done anything differently for the suspended student, that kid may be more disconnected from the school community and its rules. We have the ability and resources to work on relationship building rather than suspending the student, so that student feels more invested in the school community, including the child who was targeted, making it safer for everyone in the long run.
In order for families to understand this logic and practice, we need a community conversation about how we want schools to work with kids who in some way violate the social contract of a school. We cannot continue to use exclusion because kids will come back, and what happens then?
The new state rules emphasize community-wide involvement in the development of district policies and procedures. This opens the opportunity for community discussion about what student discipline should look like in our public schools. Every year school districts are supposed to look at their discipline data and practices. Each year is an opportunity for real community involvement. I would really encourage anyone who has some extra time, some extra bandwidth, to participate.