Principals in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) had long been concerned that a rigid approach to possession of drugs and alcohol on campus was leading to more kids being pushed out of school. This in turn caused disenchantment in education, more behavioral issues, and a clearer path in the school-to-prison pipeline. Heeding their feedback, the district changed its procedures in 2017 to allow administrators more say in how they respond to substance use.
Franklin High School Assistant Principal Annie Patu noticed in 2017 that the school’s shift in addressing substance use from a more punitive to a restorative approach was working when a ninth-grade student who had used marijuana was referred to a treatment program that helped the kid get clean. The student has not had any referrals in the past couple of years, and was exposed to leadership opportunities through counseling. “I think that this particular kid just wanted to be seen and heard and found an alternative route to doing that through music and theater,” Patu said.
A growing body of research has shown that exclusionary school disciplinary policies—such as removing kids from schools through out-of-school suspensions and expulsions—lead to disengagement from school and an increased risk of dropping out. Students who are suspended also fall behind in their studies, according to a 2013 University of California Berkeley School of Law report.
Seeking to curb the disproportionate impact on students of color, the U.S. Department of Education under former President Barack Obama issued voluntary guidelines for schools in 2014 to avoid suspensions and expulsions. However, in mid-December, the Federal Commission on School Safety, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, recommended rescinding the Obama-era guidelines on school disciplinary action.
Amid the threat of federal guidelines being revoked, 19 states including Washington, D.C., proposed or enacted legislation requiring schools to limit suspension and expulsions between January 2017 and April 2018, according to Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children. School districts such as Seattle are also stepping up by reforming disciplinary practices at the local level.
In 2017, the SPS Board of Directors changed the district’s disciplinary procedures to be responsive to the individual needs of students. The Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook prohibits students from possessing drugs and alcohol on campus. Prior to the procedure changes in 2017, students who violated the policy were subject to disciplinary action, which usually came in the form of long-term suspensions. “It was very rigid previously,” said Lisa Davidson, SPS Manager of Prevention and Intervention. But after 2017, the school district moved from an exclusionary approach to one that allows students to remain in school if they agree to treatment resources.
With the help of a grant funded by King County Public Health, the school district was able to support schools in shifting disciplinary procedures by training staff and administrators to identify and respond to substance use, and to give administrators feedback on their practices in order to glean disproportionality in the school discipline data.
Some principals told Davidson that a lack of access to counselors had created a barrier in supporting their students, so SPS used the county grant money to partner with substance-use disorder agencies in Seattle to offer in-school and outside counseling services for students.
So far, it’s worked. According to SPS data, the disciplinary procedure changes and support provided to schools allowed for a 29 percent decrease in the amount of short-term and in-house suspensions issued for drug and alcohol offenses in high schools during the 2017–18 academic year—saving 1,158 hours in instructional time. The trend continued during the 2018–19 school year, with a 20 percent decrease in suspension days during the first academic quarter compared to the previous year.
“If you’re behind in math because you’re smoking a lot of weed and then we tell you that you can’t go to math for two weeks, that doesn’t help,” Davidson said. “What helps is to have the students in school where they can be supported and engaged in a positive community so we can keep them healthy and safe.”
At Franklin High School, kids caught possessing alcohol or drugs are met by administrators and given the option of completing a drug mediation agreement to avoid long-term suspension. The assessment determines whether the student needs more treatment or drug-education classes. Patu said it’s allowed her to have “restorative conversations about why they’re using and what they think might be the actual root of the issues, and then giving them real support instead of taking instructional time away from them.”
Students who go through an assessment administered by partners including Therapeutic Health Services and Sound Mental Health are then provided with in-school educational classes or programs at the organization that teach youth about drug addiction and the effects of drug and alcohol use. The restorative approach to substance use has led to a drop in referrals, Patu said.
“It’s definitely daylighted the serious issue of drug abuse and dealing with it in a way that’s not rigid, and building relationships with kids,” Patu said. It’s a restorative model that she believes could be adopted to reform other aspects of school disciplinary policy. “[It’s] really finding out the real issues that they’re dealing with and being able to provide through that to get them back on track as much as possible.”