When One Day Out Of School Means Years of Consequences

A call for Chancellor Antwan Wilson to end undocumented suspensions.

Dione was stabbed in a fight after school. In response, his school told him not to come back without a parent. Dione’s mother couldn’t miss work, so the school recorded Dione’s absence as unexcused instead of a suspension. It took Children’s Law Center months of persistent advocacy to get his school records corrected so he could graduate.

The Washington Post recently reported that some DC high schools are reporting only a fraction of suspensions: our lawyers fight for children of all ages who, like Dione, suffer serious consequences from this unacceptable practice.

“It has been going on for years, usually with the same fact pattern,” says Children’s Law Center attorney Anne Cunningham when we sat down to discuss this as a staff recently. “A kid is causing problems in school, and the school asks them to leave and not come back without a parent, but in the meantime the school doesn’t document it as a suspension.”

I’ve seen the impact, not only in the lives of Children’s Law Center’s clients, but also in my own life. Nearly twenty years ago, I adopted two boys with significant trauma histories. I came to dread the mid-day call from my younger son’s elementary school to pick him up. Unlike most parents, I could bring him to my office and didn’t risk losing my job. These mid-day pickups went undocumented, and my son’s trauma went unaddressed. Only after my son transferred to a school that understood his trauma was my son able to behave, learn and graduate from high school.

Suspensions – documented or not – affect the children we work with the most: students of color, students with disabilities and students in foster care. Although DC Public Schools (DCPS) currently reports an overall reduction in suspensions, our day-to-day reality doesn’t match this data: we regularly meet children who are sent home without their suspension being recorded and students being suspended instead of receiving the supports they need.

I urge DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson to send the message that he will not tolerate this violation of the law. To make his vision for DCPS a reality and to earn the community’s trust, he must end the practice of undocumented suspensions.

Students who aren’t in school miss invaluable learning time and are not receiving the due process and supportive interventions they need from their school. These students are more likely to fall behind and get poor grades, often leaving them frustrated or embarrassed. In turn, these negative feelings can often lead to more misbehavior and cause students to drop out. Children’s Law Center is a founding member of the Every Student, Every Day Coalition. We are working hand-in-hand with other advocacy organizations in the District to ensure this practice does not continue and no more children are kept out of school unnecessarily.

I strongly support the Chancellor’s vision for students in the District. His focus on social-emotional health is exactly what students in the District need. Ensuring that students who are regularly struggling with adversity in their personal lives are actually seen is critical to their ability to learn and thrive.

Chancellor Wilson is well-positioned to implement his vision. He has been a career-long cheerleader for restorative justice programs and prides himself on his work to decrease suspensions during his tenure as Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District.

Now is the time to prioritize this issue and create a culture change within the District that finally puts an end to this decades-long practice that is hurting our children.

“I worked with a girl in middle school who was sent home in the middle of the day and told not to come back to school without a parent,” Anne told me when we chatted. “Her mother wasn’t able to take the time off and sent her daughter to school the next day. But when the girl tried to go back to school, the security guard said she wasn’t allowed in the building. All of those days she missed were counted as unexcused absences, which ended up being a problem. Because it wasn’t documented as a suspension, the school didn’t have to have the required meetings that should come with a suspension. For this child, that meant both an excessive and unnecessary loss of class time plus a lost opportunity for the adults to have a real conversation about the root cause of her behavior.”

Changing this culture of undocumented suspensions will take strong leadership from a Chancellor who refuses to accept fraud in his schools. Chancellor Wilson, we believe you have what it takes to provide all schools with the tools they need to offer an alternative to suspensions. Start today. Just one day out of school makes a huge impact in a child’s education, and we don’t have time to waste.

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