Washington state school district under fire for discipline policy that considers students’ race

(The Center Square) – A Washington state school board’s recent adoption of a “culturally responsive” student discipline policy that considers a student’s race before deciding on…

(The Center Square) – A Washington state school board’s recent adoption of a “culturally responsive” student discipline policy that considers a student’s race before deciding on consequences for inappropriate behavior has drawn media scrutiny for the Clover Park School District in Lakewood.

Alyssa Anderson Pearson, president of the school board, thinks some of the reporting has been unfair. Pearson, along with fellow school board members Anthony Veliz and Carole Jacobs, voted to pass the policy, while Paul Wagemann and David Anderson voted against it.

“Contrary to recent inaccurate news coverage and social media posts, Clover Park School District’s Student Discipline Policy does not make race the determining factor for administering discipline,” Pearson said in an email to The Center Square regarding the school board’s March 14 adoption of the policy. “It contains no such provision. The recent update of our policy is based on a Washington State School Directors Association [WSSDA] model policy. It has been adopted by multiple school districts and is in alignment with state law.”

She was backed up by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

“WSSDA regularly creates model policies for local school boards to adopt or to build their local policies off of,” said Katy Payne, OSPI executive director of communications, via email. “This student discipline policy was created at the direction of the Legislature after they passed comprehensive legislation in 2015 or 2016 aimed at closing gaps in disproportionate discipline rates affecting students of color and students with disabilities primarily.”

She continued, “Data from schools in our state consistently show students of color and students with disabilities are disciplined more often than their white, non-disabled peers even for the same offenses. This model policy aims to ensure students are disciplined equally, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or ability status.”

The six-page Policy 3241, in part, reads, “The District will consider student program status and demographic information (i.e. gender, grade-level, low-income, English language learner, migrant, special education, Section 504, foster care, and homeless) when disaggregating student race and ethnicity data to identify any within-group variation in school discipline experiences and outcomes of diverse student groups.”

To make student discipline outcomes more “equitable,” the district must meet “individual student needs in a culturally responsive manner” via “culturally responsive discipline.”

State law officially defines “culturally responsive” as “knowledge of student cultural histories and contexts, as well as family norms and values in different cultures; knowledge and skills in accessing community resources and community and parent outreach; and skills in adapting instruction to students’ experiences and identifying cultural contexts for individual students.”

That’s similar to Clover Park School District’s definition of “culturally responsive practices” recognizing “the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning,” pointed out Ben Miller, community relations manager for the Clover Park School District.

When asked at the school board meeting what is meant by the term “culturally responsive discipline,” Deputy Superintendent Brian Laubach tried to explain.

“Essentially, they are referring there that you look at are you dispersing discipline across the ethnicities, the racial groups, equitably,” explained Deputy Superintendent Brian Laubach. “So, are you disciplining African-American boys more than you’re disciplining white boys? So, are you paying attention to all of that in your data?”

Miller reiterated Clover Park’s new student discipline policy does not put race front and center.

“The student discipline policy has already included language to be responsive to cultural context and to ensure every opportunity for students to achieve personal and academic success,” he said. “The language update is similar in intent to previous policy language and does not make race the determining factor in administration of discipline.”

Pearson defended the board’s decision.

“Our district has high standards for student behavior,” she said. “It is the intention of the school board that discipline policies and procedures be implemented in a manner that supports a positive school environment, maximizes instructional time and increases educational opportunity for all. The student discipline process is a learning opportunity for students to improve behavior and contribute to a safe and respectful learning environment.”