Five years ago, Loudoun’s education leaders set out to reduce the school system’s suspension rate with the goal of finding more constructive ways to discipline students. They say there’s more work to be done, but they recently got a kudos from the Legal Aid Justice Center for making progress.
Legal Aid Justice Center, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit organization that provides legal services for low-income individuals, released its “Suspended Progress 2017” report last month.
The report looked at suspension and expulsion rates in Virginia’s public schools during the 2015-2016 academic year. That year, Virginia schools issued 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to more than 70,000 students. That’s up from the previous year. It scolded several school divisions that have tallied relatively high suspension rates. Petersburg City suspended 18 percent of its students at least once, the highest rate in the state, and Portsmouth City suspended 16 percent of its students at least once.
The Legal Aid Justice Center says that schools’ use of “exclusionary discipline” is harmful. “Suspensions and expulsions place students out of sight and out of mind, but they don’t disappear,” it stated in the report. “These are often children who—still forming as people—need academic, social, and therapeutic supports, and positive adult guidance, more than ever.”
But Loudoun County Public Schools was one of 12 school systems the center put in the spotlight for adopting “restorative practices.” It defines restorative practices as non-punitive methods that provide meaningful, appropriate accountability for a student’s specific behavior issue.
The report said that restorative practices help decrease students’ poor behavior, boost their academic achievement, improve the overall climate of the school, encourage peer-to-peer accountability, and teach students and teachers conflict resolution skills.
During the 2015-2016 school year, 699 Loudoun students were suspended at least once—less than 1 percent of the overall student population—and zero were expelled, according to the report. That’s down significantly over five years earlier, when 1,004 students were suspended and an additional 11 were expelled. The division decreased suspensions and expulsions while growing by more than 13,000 students over that six-year period.
Members of the School Board have worked to address a perceived zero-tolerance discipline model. Over the past few years, they’ve brought the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program into every school. It helps educators create plans to prevent poor behavior, particularly for students who would benefit more from counseling than a week out of school.
School Board members are crediting that program, paired with a student-to-student support program called PEER, with contributing to the decline in total suspensions and expulsions even as enrollment has increased.
Now, their focus is on reducing the rate of suspensions among minority students and students with disabilities. Loudoun’s black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities are disproportionality suspended and expelled, which is also a problem at the state level and nationally. Special education students in Loudoun County are three times more likely to be suspended than their general education peers. Black students are two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended, and Hispanic students are suspended one-and-a-half times more often than the rest of their peers, according to data from 2014-2015.
The school system has since increased professional development and training for teachers related to discipline.
Board members have agreed they want to work with principals and teachers to ensure punishments are applied more fairly—they’ve made closing the discipline disproportionality gap a goal by 2020.