A bill aiming to transform how Delaware schools approach school discipline didn’t reach the finish line this legislative session. But Senator Margaret Rose Henry says it will be back next year.
State Senator Margaret Rose Henry says schools too often rely on harsh school disciplinary measures – especially when it comes to minority students and students with disabilities, and even when addressing minor issues, like being late to class. And she says it isn’t a new problem.
“A lot of times African Americans – but particularly African American males – they’re probably 2-3 times more likely to receive a suspension than a white student doing the same thing," Henry said.
State Department of Education (DOE) data from 2013 shows that only 2% of out-of-school suspensions were for serious offenses like weapons, drugs or serious violence.
Additionally, 2013 data shows African American students accounted for 62% of out-of-school suspensions, and students with disabilities accounted for 24%. Those numbers are disproportionate to the total percentage of African American students and students with disabilities in Delaware that year: 32% and 13% respectively.
Her bill hopes to address that disparity. It would require schools that send 20% of their students to one of several disciplinary options - like in-school or out-of-school suspension, an alternative school assignment or expulsion – to implement a school-wide discipline improvement plan.
But the ACLU of Delaware’s Shannon Griffin says the bill doesn’t mandate what’s included in that plan. Instead, it offers suggestions like cultural competency, classroom management training and training on implicit bias. School officials and teachers would all be involved in developing that plan.
“It’s not punitive – in other words, we want the schools to do better," Henry said. "And once we bring it to their attention, then hopefully they can do better.”
Griffin is working with a local disability group to clarify some language to ensure schools are held accountable per the bill.
The bill as written now also mandates the state DOE issue an annual school discipline report - with data for all schools categorized by discipline type, race, age, gender, English proficiency and discipline duration - in hopes of adding an extra layer of transparency.
"Right now, what's available is really limited," Griffin said. She said some districts like the Christina School District are mandated to report detailed disciplinary data. But In Christina's case, the mandate comes in the aftermath of a 2010 U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigation that found discrimination in the district's disciplinary practices.
Now, the district provides a monthly "disciplinary dashboard" with both district-wide and school-specific data, providing monthly counts of referrals and suspensions and cumulative rates by student subgroups. Griffin says that level of detail isn't available in schools across the First State, but should be.
"They even show you where instances occur," Griffin said. "Maybe there are more instances that happen in the classroom - that's typically the case - or in the cafeteria or in commons areas. It's really, really detailed. We think it's a good model that other districts should follow."
She hopes the bill - if passed next year - will propel schools to start making their school discipline data available to help inform how they can proactively prepare for future disciplinary issues and respond accordingly.