Data from the past few years shows that certain students belonging to certain demographics are disproportionately more likely to be kicked out of classrooms in the Kent School District than students from other ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction keeps data from every school district in the state, including data on the yearly demographic trends as well as exclusionary discipline data across those demographics.
Exclusionary discipline is when a student is punished by being sent to in-school suspension, suspension at home, or even expulsion.
While data from the 2019-2020 school year is the most recent available, the pandemic likely skewed this data as students did not finish the year in a typical classroom setting, but rather at home.
Data from the five previous years shows the disproportionate ways in which exclusionary discipline is used against certain student demographics, particularly Black students.
During the 2018-2019 year, Black students made up 12.5% of the Kent School District enrollments, but they made up roughly 28% of suspensions and expulsions given during the school year.
The disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline against Black students in Kent schools seems to be relatively consistent over the past few years. According to OSPI data, percentages of the Black student population that were sent out of class were higher than any other racial demographic, with 8.5% of the entire Black student enrollment being disciplined during the 2014-2015 school year.
During the same five-year span, proportions of white students being disciplined by being excluded from class never rose above 2.5%.
During the 2018-2019 school year, white students made up roughly one-third of the student population in the Kent School District with nearly 9,000 students, but they only made up only 23% of the suspensions and expulsions with 197 students punished. Black students made up 12.5% of the total student population, but accounted for 237 of the disciplined students.
During that same year, 79.5% of the teachers in the Kent School District were white.
OSPI data suggests exclusionary discipline is disproportionate among their ethnic demographics in the district as well, including Latinx and Indigenous students.
The inequities exist among students of different intersectional socioeconomic backgrounds as well. During the 2018-2019 school year, 11.4% of the foster care students in KSD were excluded as discipline, while only 3.1% of the non-foster care students received the same punishment; 12.2% percent of homeless students were excluded while 3% of non-homeless students were treated the same way; 4.5% of low-income students were kicked out while only 1.4% of their counterparts were disciplined; 8.1% of students with disabilities were suspended or expelled while only 2.5% of non-disabled students received the same treatment.
Randy Heath, the Kent School District’s executive director of Student and Family Support Services, said suspensions and expulsions have been an “accepted practice” among educational administrators for many years, but recently educators are beginning to recognize how it can be problematic and even a barrier to education.
Heath said exclusionary discipline is typically only used in the most serious of disciplinary situations, but administrators are realizing that the method of excluding a problem student is not likely to change the behavior by itself and may even damage a student’s trust of the educational system, relationship with educators and even their attitude toward learning.
Heath also recognized that the use of exclusionary discipline can certainly be influenced by implicit bias held by staff and can even become an educational equity issue. He said district administrators have been collecting and examining the data on the issue and have been working to develop not only alternative methods of discipline and student support, but also equitable ways to administer those methods.
He said it is important as educational administrators to ask the question: “Are there practices we unintentionally put in place that may be disproportionately affecting certain students?”
Heath said recently implemented state laws are aimed at limiting the amount of exclusionary discipline used by schools, and said the Kent School District is already working to do the same through alternative means of discipline and support.
He described a “multi-tier system” in which students who are misbehaving in school are ranked by their need of attention and support, with the highest-need tier receiving mental health and counseling services to help them be successful in their learning environment.
Heath said students can receive individualized plans with a focus on continuing their education and not allowing the disciplinary actions to become a barrier to their learning.
“Education needs to continue even when they are suspended,” Heath said. “It is a big task, but we are getting better at it.”
He said one of the keys of being successful, both in school and in life, is building relationships. The goal for discipline going forward is to not damage the relationships students have in their life, both to the people and the systems involved in their education, and to support and build a “feeling of belonging.”