To advocates for marginalized children in Clark County, the news of Vancouver Public Schools’ unbalanced discipline rates was bittersweet.
Vindicating, some said, but ultimately unsurprising.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office has ordered Clark County’s second largest school district to review its discipline policies after finding some students of color and disabled students are suspended or expelled at higher rates than their white and non-disabled peers. A yearlong investigation by the office found that students who are black, Native American, Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian, as well as those with disabilities, are disproportionately disciplined “at every stage in the process.” The office also found the district failed to review its disciplinary practices to determine whether the inequalities were a result of discrimination.
Still, district officials say they’re working to ease inequities in suspensions and expulsions, saying they’ve implemented new procedures that are less punitive.
“It’s not that we’ve ignored this problem,” district spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said. “It’s something we’re committed to continue working on.”
Lynn Marzette, chair of the Legal Redress Committee for the Vancouver branch of the NAACP, said the organization has been looking at the issue of racial inequities in Vancouver Public Schools for some time now. He noted a couple of recent complaints from parents specifically about the way their children were disciplined, and said the NAACP wants to work with the district to ease the disparities.
“Our reaction is that it does validate some of the things we’ve looked at and received complaints about,” Marzette said. “It goes deeper. It’s a little more widespread. But we’ve been getting symptoms of these types of issues, and we’ve been trying to address those.”
Vancouver Public Schools also tends to punish students of color and students with disabilities at higher rates than the state as a whole. For example, data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction shows 10.9 percent of African American students were suspended or expelled in the 2017-2018 school year, compared with 4.9 percent of their white peers. At the state level, 8.5 percent of black students were excluded from school, compared with 3.5 percent of their white peers.
The school district also stands out compared with comparably sized districts, both locally and elsewhere in Washington. The district, for example, suspended and expelled 11.5 percent of its Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students in the 2017-2018 school year. Evergreen Public Schools, meanwhile, excluded 5.3 percent of students from the same demographic, according to the OSPI data.
Vancouver Public Schools also disciplines more students with disabilities than comparably sized districts, including Federal Way, Puyallup and Edmonds. The district excluded 13.5 percent of students with disabilities in 2017-2018, compared with 11.6 percent in Federal Way, 9.5 percent in Puyallup and 7.3 percent in Edmonds, the OSPI data shows.
Melissa Dodge oversees a support group for mothers of autistic children. She doesn’t live in the Vancouver school district, but said the attorney general’s report reflects what her friends and members of the organization have experienced.
“It’s about time. It’s about time somebody starts listening,” Dodge said. “These families have been fighting. They’ve been going through hell, and it’s not fair.”
Dodge called for additional training for teachers and special education staff to ensure students aren’t being withheld from school due to issues stemming from their disabilities.
“Our kids are hard. I don’t disagree with that,” Dodge said. “But you chose this profession.”
The district says it plans to hold smaller discussions with interested community groups over the next couple of months. Broader public outreach will occur after a formal report, conducted by Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California Los Angeles, is released to the district in January. That report will be the first in the three-year, $150,000 agreement.
In the meantime, district officials say policies focused on looking at why students act out rather than just how they behave are improving outcomes for students.
Nuzzo, the district spokeswoman, pointed to Vancouver’s contracts with nine mental health care providers, who offer counseling services on campus rather than forcing students to go somewhere for mental health treatment. She also noted that the district uses a policy called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which is rooted in teaching students what good behavior looks like rather than punishing misbehavior.
The challenge, she said, will be in improving the numbers while ensuring that all students are safe.
“We are absolutely committed to doing what’s right for kids,” Nuzzo said. “That’s the bottom line. The numbers don’t look good, but we’re committed to changing that and doing better without going the other direction.”
Katherine Rodela, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Washington State University Vancouver, said she was not surprised by the inequities — after all, she said, they largely exist in all schools across Washington and the nation.
But, Rodela added, the district could be a leader on responding to the issue. Children and families need to be brought into a broader conversation about race in schools, whether children of color are excited to be in school, and what teachers and administrators can do to make school feel like a safe place for all students.
“Communities of color have been seeing these kinds of things,” she said. “It wasn’t a shock. Everyone knew this. How is this going to be an opportunity to do what’s right and be a model for other districts who have similar data?”