Monday, January 28, 2013

Testimony - Discipline bills

Re: Support for Senate Bills 5155, 5244, 5245 and 5301 (all dealing with suspensions and expulsions); request for more foundational work to address behavior and school climate issues

To: Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee

Dear Chairman Litzow and Senators,

Thank you for working on the issue of school discipline. Expulsions and suspensions have not been effective disciplinary measures and have contributed to the achievement gaps. Their overuse has especially hurt children of color and students enrolled in special education. Zero-tolerance policies, in turn, have led to an increased reliance on suspensions and expulsions.

Our collective approach doesn’t make sense and doesn’t work. Yet school climate is essential both for individual student success and whole-school turnaround. All students and staff deserve a safe, productive learning environment.

So what is the responsible step? Give schools the tools to create and maintain a positive school climate.

Senate Bills 5155, 5244, 5245 and 5301 all address needed components of discipline overhaul, and Washington State PTA supports them as far as they go. But to genuinely improve outcomes for students, districts need to take proactive approaches that establish school-wide behavior expectations, help teach them when necessary, and use data to understand where breakdowns are happening and identify intervention strategies.

Please, don’t just react to a dysfunctional system; help fix it. Please, take steps to support training for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and adopt consistent standards and expectations around social emotional learning, K-12. Our school staffs, students and families are often talking past each other and misinterpreting actions. Truly dangerous behavior is not the same as defiant behavior. School staffs need to recognize the differences and deal with students appropriately.


For at-risk students, the most consistently documented outcome of suspension and expulsion appears to be further suspension and expulsion. Punishing children by taking away instructional time can end up pushing them out of school. And in the case of open-ended expulsions, children have no guarantee they will receive an education from another institution.

According to a synopsis of research from the National Association of School Psychologists:
The American Psychological Association recommends rethinking zero tolerance policies and looking at alternative disciplinary practices. (“Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations.” American Psychologist, December 2008.

Setting common social emotional learning standards is an important first step in revising discipline practices. Students need to understand and manage their emotions, especially students coming from stressful home environments or children with special needs. Students from different cultures need to understand expectations in classrooms, and those expectations should not dramatically vary from room to room.

Giving kids the tools to self-regulate and being clear about expectations substantially reduces school violence and discipline issues. (See Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning,, for research analysis.)


Positive behavior supports create student-focused, safe environments conducive to learning – a key ingredient for successful student outcomes. A longitudinal study of school turnaround efforts in Chicago identified five essential supports. All had to be present for sustained success:
  • School leadership
  • Parent and community ties
  • Professional capacity of the faculty
  • School learning climate
  • Instructional guidance
Schools with strong safety and order were two times more likely to improve in reading than schools weak on this measure. Schools that measured strong in all five supports were at least 10 times more likely than schools with just one or two strengths to achieve substantial gains in reading and math. A sustained weakness in just one of these areas undermined virtually all attempts at improving student learning. (SOURCE: Bryk, A., P.B. Sebring, E. Allensworth, and J.Q. Easton. Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. )

For schools implementing PBIS strategies with fidelity, student instruction time is maximized. Effective use of classroom time has consistently been shown to have a strong effect on student achievement. (SOURCE: Marzano, R.J. (2000). A New Era of School Reform: Going Where the Research Takes Us. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. )
 Conversely, zero tolerance, suspensions and expulsions can have devastating consequences for children. In addition to being ineffective as behavior management tools, they can alienate children who often most need support.
  • Students can’t learn if they are removed from the classroom.
  • When students are suspended or expelled, administrators are often sending that young person back into the environment that inspired their unfavorable behavior.


School climate is a joint effort of student, staff and family. Washington State PTA members weighed in on discipline issues this past fall and adopted the following legislative priorities:
  • Promote and support implementation of school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and  Supports (PBIS) or similar evidence-based programs, and discourage use of zero tolerance policies, open-ended expulsions and suspension policies that take students out of a productive learning environment.
  • Require review of discipline policies in the state's "required action" audits and inclusion of school-wide PBIS or similar evidence-based programs in improvement plans for the state's persistently lowest performing schools.
  • Require alternative education assignments for students suspended or expelled.
  • Increase investment for technical assistance, training, and implementation of the PBIS model or similar evidence-based models of addressing behavioral problems in schools.
  • Assist in the development and implementation of integrated data systems to inform strategies and trigger supports and research-based interventions, including social and emotional learning methods, for students and families.
Nationally, PTA also encourages “school-parent compacts” so that together schools and families can develop recommendations for student attendance, and set expectations and supports for student behaviors. Compacts must include rational disciplinary policies that include the implementation of school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or similar evidence-based approaches, and phase-out zero-tolerance policies and out-of-school suspension that contribute to the achievement gap.
Schools and families have to tackle this one together. We need to keep the kids in school, learning in safe, positive school climates.
Ramona Hattendorf
Government Relations Coordinator
Washington State PTA

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