Sheila Warren says she's fed up.

For years now, she and others have been asking Portland Public Schools to change the way it disciplines students who get into trouble.

She's written letters, attended meetings and brought students and parents before the School Board to describe the effects of suspensions and expulsions, which fall disproportionately on Portland's black, Latino, low-income and special-education students.

"We've been trying to push for a reduction in exclusionary discipline for years," Warren says, "and we never got a response."

Warren and the Portland Parent Union—a group she founded in 2009 to support families of children facing school discipline—have decided to try something different.

This week, the group is launching a campaign calling on the district to declare a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions that require students to do their time outside of school.

Warren, who sent her children and grandchildren through PPS, says she hopes the formal call for a halt to out-of-school suspensions will get the attention of school officials and parents.

"It's a paradigm shift," says Warren. "We are asking for the schools to pause and listen to the families and students before they make a decision of what they will do with kids."

Expulsions and out-of-school suspensions and racial disparities in school discipline are problems across the country.

But the racial disparities have been growing at PPS, and the district hasn't moved fast enough to fix them for Warren and other community members.

District numbers show PPS turns to out-of-school suspensions two and a half times as often as requiring suspended students to serve their time in school, sometimes in study halls or detention.

School officials say they have been responsive and are working to reverse the trend of widening disparities. School Board member Bobbie Regan says the district has not moved fast enough to close the gaps.

"There's a whole lot of work going on in the district right now," Regan says. "I'm not sure if a moratorium is really possible, but I am convinced that we could do better. It's absolutely the discussion we should be having."

PPS data show that, overall, the district is suspending and expelling fewer students than it did three years ago—a trend that school officials say is good news.

But the data also show that the hammer, when it falls, hits African-American students harder relative to white students.

Last fall, WW reported that racial disparity in PPS's discipline of white and African-American students was growing despite expensive efforts to reverse the trend ("Expel Check," WW, Sept. 25, 2013). Data obtained by WW showed black students in 2012-13 were nearly five times more likely to be disciplined than white students.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in 2011 a crackdown on schools' overuse of exclusionary discipline and its disproportionate impact on minority and special-education students.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights reported last month that expulsions and suspensions are imposed significantly more often on Latino and African-American students, do little to improve school safety or deter misbehavior, and hurt academic achievement and graduation rates.

The Oregon Education Investment Board also issued a brief in March 2013 calling for Oregon districts to find alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

WW reported last fall that the disparities have grown despite expensive efforts to change the district's culture regarding race, including $2.5 million on racial-sensitivity training for teachers, staff and administrators.

Recently, PPS implemented an alternative approach to discipline at a number of Portland schools that promotes positive behavior over punishment, and a program called Restorative Justice, which works to have the disciplined make amends for his or her actions.

Tammy Jackson, PPS's director of student services, says the district is rewriting its discipline policies, which she says should be ready by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Jackson says PPS has been talking to other school districts, such as Baltimore and San Francisco, that have introduced moratoriums similar to the one sought by Warren's group. She adds that each case of student discipline is different, and the punishment meted out needs to take into account many factors, including the safety of students.

"We know exclusion is not an effective strategy to support our students," Jackson says. "At this point, we are not looking to jump off into a moratorium, but we also aren't shying away from the conversation."

Warren's group kicks off its campaign Wednesday, April 9, at 6 pm at Rigler Elementary, 5401 NE Prescott St. PPS officials say they plan to attend. 

"I'm on the ground working with families every day," Warren says. "When I don't have families that are nervous wrecks, up in arms, and feeling minimized, then I can have faith [the district's] programs are working. Right now, I am totally upset with the whole process.”