By Michael Shank and Allyson Mitchell

A new report, released last week, suggests that DC Public Schools’ much lauded reform efforts are still failing to produce positive results for DC’s students.  Despite changes first championed by former Chancellor Michelle Rhee and now by Chancellor Kaya Henderson, the report isn’t pretty:  There was little progress in test scores, costly school closures made capacity problems worse and sent students to poorer-performing schools, restrictive evaluations led to higher turnover of teachers, and racial gaps in achievement grew.

Elaine Weiss, the National Coordinator who wrote the report for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign, said that “instead of continuing Rhee’s reforms, the District should address health and other problems that lead to truancy, and it should make sure the quality of teachers in Anacostia are just as good as those in Chevy Chase”.

In addressing DC’s truancy, an issue that we’ve written about before , a key component is often missed: suspensions, detentions, and exactly how DC Public Schools is disciplining its students.   Long-term suspensions in DC Public Schools (DCPS) are common, can last anywhere from 11-90 days, and may be authorized only by a person designated by the chancellor. And while DC Municipal Regulations Chapter 25 requires that students under long-term suspension “shall be placed in an Alternative Educational Setting that will allow the student the opportunity to continue to earn credits towards promotion or graduation requirements,” there is concern in the community that the ‘alternative setting’ is often the student’s home.

How long-term suspensions inspire chronic truancy, then, is the question.  In many cases, suspension forces the student to repeat grade levels, which, if exercised on a reoccurring basis, can cause the child to abandon hope of graduation.  Once a child feels defeated, it is not only the grades that suffer; increases in chronic absenteeism, truancy, and student dropout rate also occur.   And suspensions pose a particular problem in poorer parts of DC, like southeast, where long-term suspensions force a single parent to take off work, unpaid, or leave their child at home unsupervised.

Defending this policy, the DC Public Schools “Philosophy and Approach to Student Behavior and Discipline” stated that the “discipline policies are developmentally-appropriate, equitable, and consistently enforced school wide”.  Yet, it is difficult to find substantiating evidence to validate these claims. In addition to a lack of consistent discipline and enforcement across DC schools, and even within the same school, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and DCPS are continuing to overstep reasonable bounds when it comes to school discipline procedures.

Police are now assuming roles once served by school counselors.  The existence of cops with handcuffs in hand, serving as hall monitors and lunchroom attendants under the title of Security Resource Officers (SRO), should be a major concern to parents and policymakers. Many inner-city schools have gotten cozy with the local police departments in order to display a semblance of security and safety.  This is especially the case after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

By bringing the police into the schools, discipline that was historically handled by trained counselors behind closed doors is now carried out in the open with harsher punishments and the prospect of a tainted criminal record. Students are on guard at all times, since putting a hand on someone can bring not only suspension but also an arrest for simple assault.  These zero tolerance policies have created a prison-like atmosphere in some DC public schools.

The SROs wear duel hats while in the school setting.  They have all the rights of a police officer, but they are also active members of the school administration and, as any other school official, are permitted to stop, question, and take action without contacting parents or guardians in advance.   This means that SROs can question students for criminal activity without a parent present and without reading the student their Miranda Rights.  This is enabling them to act outside of policing procedural structure when in their school capacity.  The minor can then be arrested for the information they unwittingly relayed to the officer.  An MPD circular, or written directive, requiring police to consider the child’s age as a part of the Miranda custody analysis expired in 2012. As new guidance was not published, the written directive remains unclear in 2013.

In an effort to bring accountability to this MPD-DCPS partnership, the department was ordered last year by D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith N. Macaluso to release almost all of its orders and policies to the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. It was most comprehensive release of police documents in the history of DC’s Freedom of Information Act.  What the MPD didn’t release is telling: Standard Operating Procedures and Regulations for the Use of Force in DC Public Schools, Searches and Seizures on DC Public Schools Property and the Code of Conduct for Contract Security Officers and Special Police Officers in DC Public Schools all remain restricted.  Since these MPD directives remain undecipherable, a student’s best option, then, is to remain silent if they are questioned by SROs at school and request that they gain parental consent if they wish to continue the conversation. But that’s only a short-term fix.

The long-term fix is this: Low-level school-based offenses such as simple assault or verbal violence do not warrant ushering our children into the criminal justice system. Curbing bad behavior requires a holistic approach, with trained community members and counselors working with students on a one-on-one basis.  Instead of indefinite suspensions with little support, we should focus on keeping students in school, not out of it.  By doing so, we have a better chance of graduating DC’s young adults so they become contributing and productive members of their community.  As an added bonus, it will decrease the likelihood of a school-to-prison pipeline, something the MPD can assuredly support.

Michael Shank is adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a regular contributor to The RootDC. Allyson Mitchell is a graduate student at the school.