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DC Public Charter School Board tries to reduce 'zero tolerance' policies

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Local,DC,Education,Rachel Baye

Update: This article has been corrected to reflect that KIPP D.C. last year had 2,632 students across its nine campuses and that 24 percent were suspended or expelled.

The DC Public Charter School Board is encouraging charter schools to eliminate their "zero tolerance" discipline policies in an effort to reduce the number of students being suspended and expelled, Executive Director Scott Pearson said Thursday.

"On the whole, charter schools expel and suspend too many students," Pearson told The Washington Examiner following a D.C. Council hearing.

Some actions, like bringing a weapon to school or threatening to hurt or kill someone, are widely accepted or even federally mandated as actions meriting "zero tolerance" -- meaning a school must automatically suspend or expel a student who commits such acts, he said. However, a zero-tolerance policy for students who get into fights or bring drugs to school are less productive "because it effectively ties their hands when they're making discipline decisions."

But the charter board is talking only with schools seeking to establish campuses for the first time and those whose charters are up for renewal, since the board approves discipline policies when it approves schools' charters.

Charter schools' disciplinary policies have come under fire in recent months following reports showing that they suspend and expel students at a much higher rate than schools in the city's traditional public school system.

Last school year, charter schools -- which enrolled 41 percent of the District's public school students -- suspended 332 students for at least 10 days and expelled 239 students, according to charter board data. By comparison, DC Public Schools suspended 929 students and expelled three, according to DCPS data.

Though some charter schools did not suspend or expel any students, others levied those disciplinary actions on significant portions of their student bodies last year. Friendship Public Charter School, for example, suspended or expelled 881 -- 22 percent -- of its 3,939 students on six campuses. Of the 881 students, 70 were expelled.

Despite the numbers, Friendship Chief Operating Officer Patricia Brantley did not characterize the school's disciplinary policy as "zero tolerance."

"If a high school student brings in a massive amount of cocaine or another type of drug, we are absolutely calling Metropolitan Police," Brantley said. But the school examines every incident on a case-by-case basis, she said.

KIPP DC, which suspended or expelled 624 -- 24 percent -- of its 2,632 students across nine campuses last year, automatically suspends for at least one day any student caught fighting or carrying drugs, to give school officials time to look into the incident, said KIPP DC Executive Director Susan Schaeffler. But she also said this policy was not "zero tolerance."

"We all know that sitting at home suspended is not hugely productive," she said. "But at the same time, there has to be consequences for negative behavior."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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