By Alice Doyel
Guest blogger


Karen Pillar of TeamChild

Karen Pillar is one of TeamChild’s bright and compassionate attorneys dedicated to helping youth who are at risk. TeamChild provides legal advice and legal advocacy to people 12 to 24 years old who are involved with or at risk of involvement with the juvenile court system. They also have produced a comprehensive Education Advocacy Manual, which is free of charge and has helped many advocates and caregivers be better advocates for their child’s education.

We need to rethink what it means to respond to behavior. We should disconnect ourselves from the idea that removal is the response. Significant social science research regarding school shooters suggest that wrapping around the student and keeping them close is the best response to that extreme level of concern.

So why wouldn’t there be a similar theory for more minor behavioral incidents? The goal would be to pull students in, to wrap them close, to find ways for them to feel connected and belong. Although this is the most effective response to most behavior problems, it’s really hard for us as a culture to let go of the idea of exclusion.

The idea behind the current Washington State Education Laws (WACs) is really good and moving in the right direction. But it’s hard to make the laws go as far as they should in order to be useful for all students, especially students at risk of leaving school.

The laws set some really good limits on the kinds of things you can remove a student for on a long-term basis. But like so many things with the law, there’s language in it that leaves the door open for considerable discretion.

Lawmakers want to limit longer-term suspensions and expulsions to very serious offenses. However, the WACs allow each school to use long-term suspensions and expulsions if the school feels the student’s actions are “Behavior that adversely impacts the health and safety of other students or educational staff.” This language allows a lot of discretion for using long-term suspensions and expulsions for a variety of things that schools decide adversely affects the school. Some of these offenses are typical developmental teenage behaviors, like possessing marijuana or alcohol. Consequently, we see severe punitive responses to typical teenage behavior.

Further, WACs do not effectively reduce the amount of time for an emergency exclusion. A student can still get excluded for up to 10 days with an emergency exclusion while the school investigates and makes determinations.

There is a disconnect between 10-day exclusions and the reality of 180 school days. If high school students miss 10 days of school, they might not be able to finish the semester or accrue their credits. Even short-term suspensions can run up to 10 days. In contrast, the truancy statute requires the school to take action after three unexcused absences.

A microcosm of communities is working hard at using supportive practices. One of those is the Rainier Beach Community. This community is building a strong relationship with Seattle Public Schools. Collectively, they’ve decided that a priority for their community is responding to discipline differently. They have committed to using restorative practices as a community. They focus on inclusion, not exclusion.

Another example is in Spokane. TeamChild’s Spokane office and other community groups have been working on specific discipline responses and accruing positive outcomes with the Spokane School District. There was a particular concern about policing in the schools and its relationship to school exclusions.

As a TeamChild attorney in King County, Karen has seen lots of referrals of youth for discipline from schools over a long period of time. Currently, she sees more school staff trying harder to not respond with exclusions. She sees more scenarios where teams are meeting and talking about ways to support a student. It’s coming to life – this idea of trying to reduce removals. Some personalities and some school buildings seem to have more of a prevalence toward removal, while some are more willing to work out ways to keep students in school.

There are community forces pushing toward positive changes in King County regarding incarcerating youth. Collectively these forces are having a positive impact. There was a lot of community organizing when the new detention center was funded, forcing the county government to fund and support alternative programming instead of incarceration. That’s keeping kids in the community, and in school.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline in King County had historically, and probably still is in a lot of counties, a one-way flow starting from school and ending with incarceration. The previous King County pattern went like this: the police were called about a student, that student would likely end up in the juvenile court system, likely be incarcerated, and likely never return to school.

Increasingly King County Juvenile Court is saying, “I’m going to release this kid back into the community.” The community mentors and support organizations receiving those kids and working with them are taking them back into the schools. The community service people are saying, “We are supporting the returning students.” This makes it harder for the schools to push the students out again. This pushes the schools to find positive methods to re-integrate students and support their education.

New discipline laws are supporting this effort to reverse the School-to-Prison Pipeline by requiring that students who receive school exclusions receive educational services while out of school. Depending on the length of the school exclusions and the county’s resources, services can vary considerably. Students may return to their previous schools with designed behavior plans, go to alternate buildings, or online education may be the sole alternative. Still, this is an improvement. Students may be able to keep up with their studies, may not drop a semester, and may continue to graduation. Though the attachment to school may not be perfect, it’s well ahead of incarceration.

The change in Washington state schools’ application of discipline law is gradually moving in the right direction. However, there is still a long way to go. Advocacy is needed at the school district level and often at individual schools. We really need to rethink the educational culture, starting with ending racial disparity. We need to specify what it means to intervene and support all students. Intervention is not letting students “get away” with their behaviors. Intervention means to connect with them, to pull them into the environment and say, “We want to hear how we can support you so that it can happen in a way that is useful for you and safe for everybody.”