For years, the gap has been growing between the percentage of black students and white students Portland Public Schools suspends or expels. And the gap has kept growing despite expensive efforts by PPS to close it.

The gap in disciplinary rates is a problem shared by school districts around the country. In Portland, community and parent groups have been pressing PPS for more decisive action. 

Superintendent Carole Smith is set to announce today that PPS will launch two initiatives that could significantly impact how the district disciplines students. 

The first is a plan to cut by 50 percent the overall number of PPS students suspended or expelled, and to cut by half the disparity in disciplinary rates between black and white students. Smith wants to reach both goals by the end of the 2015-16 school year. 

“Superintendent Smith is making this one of the top priorities for PPS over the next three years because we see this as key to making real strides in closing the achievement gap,” says Jon Isaacs, PPS' chief of communications and public affairs. “There are obvious disparities in the system around discipline, and that’s resulting in more lost instructional time for students of color. This is connected to everything we are doing.” 

Smith is also establishing a study group with Portland Parent Union, part of the national group Dignity in Schools’ Solutions not Suspensions campaign, to examine the feasibility of a moratorium on out of school discipline. 

In April, the Portland Parent Union called on the district to declare a moratorium (“Suspended Disbelief," WW, April 9, 2014).

Under federal pressure to reduce out of school discipline and discipline disparities, districts around the country are exploring similar alternatives. A handful of districts, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have established moratoriums on suspensions for defiance or disruptive behavior, the slipperiest discipline category covering everything from overturning over a desk to not turning off a cell phone, where critics say misinterpretation is most likely. 

Last year, disobedience and disruptive behavior were responsible for almost a quarter of all instructional days preschoolers through second graders lost to suspension or expulsion.

Next year, PPS will target 10-20 schools, including those with particularly high or low discipline rates, for the 50 percent reduction in numbers and disparity proposed by Smith. According to Isaacs, the district will ensure the target schools are properly implementing programs already in use throughout the district and showing promise, such as restorative justice, for which Smith budgeted $400,000 for the next school year. 

PPS says these programs emphasize clear guidelines, culturally responsive practices, positive behavior incentives, and conflict resolution over punishment. In the 2015-15, administrators will roll out district wide programs that worked in the target schools. 

“We aren’t just saying we want this to happen,” Isaacs says. “We are setting the direction, we are setting the practice and we are putting resources behind this.”