School Suspensions Drop, But Still Unequal

Christopher PeakWhile suspensions are down in New Haven public schools, deep disparities persist.

Members of the Board of Alders Education Committee caught that message in a two-and-a-half-hour hearing about exclusionary discipline, held this past Wednesday night on City Hall’s second floor.

Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., a former social studies teacher at Lincoln-Basset, called the meeting to discuss glaring racial disparities in discipline, after Board of Education data showed black students are four times more likely to be suspended than white students across New Haven’s public schools.

At some schools, the disparities can be even worse. According to federal data from 2015, the most recent year available, students at Edgewood School were 9.6 times more likely to be suspended if they’re black and 6.8 times more likely to be suspended if they’re brown than their white classmates.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the district’s disciplinary practices —  a case that’s still pending.

After hearing from school administrators, parents, a pediatrician and even a mayoral candidate, alders decided to continue the discussion, wanting more testimony from families who’ve dealt with suspensions and expulsions first-hand.

They voted to keep the public hearing open, to move the follow-up session to a school where suspensions fall along racial lines.

“We recognize that our city is in a financial crisis and the resources for educators to effectively do their jobs are scarce, but we must ensure that we do not continue to perpetuate a national trend of the school-to-prison pipeline,” Brackeen said. “The national trend shows children who are eventually pushed out of schools end up in the criminal justice system. In particular, disenfranchised communities are the ones being funneled through the pipeline.”

Do Restorative Practices Work?

At last week’s hearing, school administrators talked up the district’s overall move toward restorative practices. Under that model, students take responsibility for the harms they’ve caused and talk about how they plan to change their behavior, rather than just taking their lumps and acting out again once they return to class.

With those tools, some schools have all but phased out suspensions, like John S. Martinez Sea & Sky STEM Magnet School and Columbus Family Academy.

Yet districtwide, racial disparities have persisted even as suspensions dropped. Administrators said there’s still much more work to be done to figure out why black males are so often kicked out of class and what can be done about it.

Anne Gregory, an associate professor at Rutgers who studies school discipline, said that it’s good news to see New Haven’s suspension rates are declining overall, even if disparities remain.

“A reduction for all groups can be a good thing, as long as students are getting behavioral supports and are engaged in learning,” she said. “Even if the gap isn’t reducing, it’s also important to recognize the positive news.”

Gregory added that districts across the country are dealing with the same issues, finding that it’s difficult to close the gaps in suspensions.

“Districts are really having a hard time matching the racial disparities,” she said. “While [suspension and expulsion] rates are going down, basically the interventions seem to be working for all groups. It doesn’t have a special effect for black students, which is what’s needed to reduce the gap.”

Take It From Pittsburgh

That’s not to say that it can’t be done, Gregory added.

A recent randomized control trial in 44 Pittsburgh schools, conducted by the RAND Corporation, found that implementing restorative practices did start to reduce the gap for black students.

Specifically, Pittsburgh used the International Institute for Restorative Practices’s Whole-School Change program, which encourages candid discussion of feelings and experiences, both proactively to build shared values and responsively to address misbehavior.

As a result, Pittsburgh’s black students went from losing 4.37 times as many days to suspensions as white students to 3.59 times as many days. The gap between the percent of black and white students who are suspended at least once also shrunk from 3.78 percent to 2.88 percent.

However, there was one significant downside: Math scores declined significantly for Pittsburgh’s black students in 3rd through 8th grades.

As the authors dug into the data, they found those drops in achievement occurred at predominantly black schools — for both black and white students. That led some to speculate that reforms were tougher to implement in those schools that had relied more on kicking students out.

Gregory added that Oakland and Denver had similar success in reducing racial disparities in discipline through restorative practices.

Better Behaved?

Locally, what has worked so far in reducing exclusionary discipline across the board?

Typhanie Jackson, the district’s director of student services, said that explicit instruction of social-emotional skills through the Comer Developmental Pathways, norm-setting in each building through restorative practices and positive behavior interventions and supports (often shortened to PBIS), training on trauma for teachers, and partnerships with community organizations through Youth Stat have all made a difference.

Yale Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu pressed school officials on why suspensions were so much lower. Are students behaving better, or are administrators just suspending less? A little bit of both, Jackson said.

Gregory suggested that New Haven could dive into its data for some school-level clues. She said that school-climate surveys could indicate whether students feel that they have supportive, positive relationships; personnel data could show how much of each school’s staff is trained in restorative practices; and disciplinary data could show how often teachers are writing office referrals for students of different races and how often administrators are holding restorative circles.

The sanctions still being handed down in New Haven are most often for “major safety issues,” like fighting, said Kermit Carolina, the district’s supervisor for youth, family and community engagement. But he added that the district is still taking steps to cut down even on those suspensions.

“We know that sending a kid out into the street for days, going back to a dysfunctional situation does not change the behavior. Sometimes, we focus on the consequences, but the objective is to change the behavior,” Carolina said. “When your child does something wrong at home, you don’t kick them out to the street for 180 days. You find other ways: bring the kid to a doctor, psychologist, social worker, whatever’s needed to change that child’s behavior. We have to take that approach and treat each and every child in the district the same way.”

What’s Next for New Haven?

Up next, Carolina said, the district plans to consider alternatives to expulsion hearings and put a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for students in early grades. The district will make its policies clearer by revising the student code of conduct to reflect that suspensions and expulsions should no longer be a first go-to response.

The district plans to review quarterly data and develop school-based strategies to improve how it feels inside each building, looking in particular at data for high school freshmen who’ve seen spikes in discipline. And the district plans to find additional resources to hire more support staff.

Finally, in the few plans that will actually address race head on, the district plans to institute more mentorship and employment programs for black boys and train its teachers in behavioral management and implicit biases.

(Click here to download the full presentation.)

After the meeting, Carolina said that the district needs to offer smaller learning environments, but he said he opposed opening a school just for black boys, as Rev. Boise Kimber had proposed in 2017.

”I am not in support of a school in our district for black males only,” he said. “The problems discussed during the presentation require a systemic approach that addresses the needs of a specific subgroup of our more behaviorally challenged students, in particular, black boys.”

JoAnne Wilcox, a mother of three who’s been working with students at Riverside Opportunity School for the last year, said that she believes teachers need to be given the time to develop authentic relationships with their students.

“Our teachers are not given the luxury of time. They have so many constraints and their own benchmarks,” she said. “Our teachers are so used to having to jump through hoops that they don’t always welcome the responsibility of true relationship-building. How do you have buy-in when everything’s been punitive for you?”

Other speakers, including a pediatrician, said that the solutions need to start with early childhood education, addressing trauma before kids reach elementary school or even earlier.

Board of Education President Darnell Goldson said he was “stumped” by what’s driving the racial disparities in discipline. He said an educator pointed out to him that many of the school principals who are black themselves are also the ones who seem to have “paid more attention to discipline for young black boys.”

Goldson said figuring out how to close the gap will be a top priority for the school board this year. At the next board meeting. he plans to ask the superintendent to come up with “suggested solutions.”

“I think this should be one of the most important issues [for the school board] to tackle this year. We, as board members, deserve to be blamed if we don’t start to focus on this and figure out how to put policies in place in order to reduce this. We don’t have time to wait.”

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 22, 2019  8:52am

How about talking about the Suspensions in Charter Schools?

posted by: ElmCityLover on January 22, 2019  8:52am

Chris: do you have the racial breakdown of the district? Would be useful to reference how that stacks up with the suspension data. I’m sure the suspensions aren’t close to proportional, just be helpful to know to what extent.

Even IF it was proportional 2 in 3 black children and 1 in 3 Hispanic children being suspended $#@!ing absurd. That first graph should make any reasonable person want to puke.

[Chris: Last school year, the district was 38% Black, 45% Hispanic or Latino of any race, and 13% White.]

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 22, 2019  9:10am

An African-American student is twice as likely to be suspended as a Hispanic student and 3.5 times as likely as a white student. This is a real problem. But gender is also an issue. Across races/ethnicities, about 70% of the suspended students are males.

It would also be interesting to get suspension rates by grade. I suspect restorative practices are very effective in reducing suspension rates for young students. I’m less optimistic when it comes to high school seniors.

posted by: observer1 on January 22, 2019  9:21am

I would like to see a study made with more complete statistics. How many students are being disciplined by race versus the student population. I would also be interested to see these statistics broken down by gender. A complete demographic study versus just a broad bases percentage might reveal areas to be focused on for action. Incomplete presentation of statistics can be used to push an agenda. A complete statistical package normally cannot be manipulated to validate a result one wishes to reach. An independent review of each case incident to determine if the punishment fits the “crime” would also be helpful.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 22, 2019  9:48am

ElmCityLover, you’re misreading the first graph. It gives the proportion of suspensions by race/ethnicity , not the proportion of students of each group that are suspended. Assuming no student was suspended more than once per year, the likelihood that an African-American student was suspended was less than 4%. For Hispanic students, the likelihood was about half of this number. Chris is a fine writer, but this graph was a poor editorial choice.

[Chris: My fault, I made a near-copy of the graph the district shared during its presentation. I sent in a FOIA request three weeks ago, so I’ll hopefully have clearer charts of my own soon.]

posted by: ElmCityLover on January 22, 2019  10:05am

Thanks Kevin: happy to be wrong about that. Not an encouraging graph by any means, but certainly better than my initial interpretation. The title of the graph threw me, but I should have picked up on the #s adding to 100%

posted by: 1644 on January 22, 2019  10:10am

I would be interesting to look at other, possibly contributing factors in this disparity. If one controls for single parent households,  families with service needs, DCF interventions, poverty, absent parents, etc, does this racial disparity continue?  Or are factors other than race the underlying reasons.  As for the gender disparity,  much has been written about how modern school culture makes life difficult for boys, such that it has been termed a “war on boys”.  Are we too intolerant of aggression?  Do we need more controlled outlets for aggression and competition, e.g., sports?

posted by: LookOut on January 22, 2019  11:06am

During a time when we are honoring Dr King for his efforts to eliminate society judging us by the color of our skin, this type of a report is a huge step backwards.  I’m sure the same data could be parsed by gender, by weight of the student, by age, or by family issues as 1644 suggests. 
The point is, this is an attempt to work backwards to tell a pre-conceived story.  The only important (but difficult to measure) data point would be to compare the suspension rate to the rate of suspend-able activities.  Anything else is indirect and prone to bias.  For instance, if Hipanics students are responsible for 50% of the suspend-able events, then a number of suspended Hispanic students suspended over or under 50% has real meaning.  Any other way of reporting this is so lacking in scientific credibility, that there is no valid conclusion that can be made.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 22, 2019  11:22am

1644, another potentially confounding variable is student age. While I don’t have any data, my perception is that the lower grades are whiter than the upper grades. And unless kids have changed dramatically in the 50+ years since I was in school, older kids are more likely to engage in serious misconduct than younger kids.

It is important to analyze the variables you identify and their relationship to suspensions. But, I doubt that such variables account for all, or even most, of the racial disparity in suspensions. For example, many NHPS students come from low-income families, but the vast majority of these kids do not engage in behaviors that get them suspended.

posted by: 1644 on January 22, 2019  11:27am

Lookout:  The problem is that what is a “suspend-able” activity is subject to bias.  The same activity perpetrated by a black male may be viewed as more serious than that perpetrated by a white female.  Teachers and administrators may feel more threatened by males and black than by whites and females. And yes, they may feel more threatened by activity by larger students than by smaller students.  A linebacker built student who wails on a fellow student may be more likely to be suspended than one with a rowing coxswain or jockey build (i.e., short and slight).

posted by: manofthepeople on January 22, 2019  12:23pm

We see the white privilege starting young in school, where white students are less likely to be suspended. This encourages division and is racist. White students should be suspended in equal numbers to black students, and if there are not enough suspensions, the school board should start suspending more of the white students. Failing to punish these white students allows them to continue a white privilege legacy…

Speaking of which, why are so many of the writers for the NHI white? and male? Looking at the front page, 4 of the writers (from multiple articles are white males, and only 1 is a woman, and of color). Maybe recruiting some of the suspended students would be a good way to rectify the balance.

posted by: OhHum on January 22, 2019  2:07pm

@manofthepeople
Huh?

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 22, 2019  2:53pm

Man of the People,

Wow, you have some weird notion of the world. 

What you are basically saying is that every ‘race’ should be expelled at the same rate, regardless of ‘behavior’.

If a white kid and black kid engaged in the same ‘‘bad’ behavior, and the white kid got ‘a pass’ while the black kid got thrown ‘out of class’, then you would have a valid argument about ‘disproportionate treatment’.

While that ‘may’ happen, there is nothing in the article or the data to support that.

In fact, the article makes it pretty clear there is a concern among educators about the ‘behavioral problem’ of black male students, and how to specifically address it.

posted by: JohnTulin on January 22, 2019  3:51pm

KM - 70% of the suspended students are males.  There are two simple explanations for that.  If they are white males, it is because they are toxic trash.  If they are not, it is because racism.  See how easy that was. 

If Darnell is truly stumped, which I am not surprised by, then he clearly hasn’t been inside a school in a while.  He thinks the board should be blamed?  Not the parents, not the students themselves?  The out-of-touch board of non-educators is the problem?  And that is why nothing will change…

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 22, 2019  5:25pm

Here is what the statistics really say, (adjusted for population size),

White and Latino Students are expelled at virtually the same rate. (whatever that ‘rate’ may be).
Black Students are expelled at a rate that is 3.5x that of White and Latino Students.

You can do the math yourself.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 22, 2019  7:55pm

Bill, not quite. First, we’re talking about suspensions, not expulsions. And while the Hispanic suspension rate is well below the rate for African-Americans, it is still 1.5 times that of whites. The suspension rate for a group is the number of students in a particular group who are suspended, divided by the total number of students in that group. You can calculate the rates using the data provided in the second chart in this article, the demographic data Chris provided, and the total number of NHPS students.

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 22, 2019  9:42pm

KM,

I am looking at Student Suspension Rate by Race—First Chart.  This is how I read it.
If everything was ‘racially equal’, the proportion of suspensions per ‘class’ would be equal.

Chris also provided the ‘racial breakdown’ in the comments. (I did have a typo in my initial analysis)

Everything is on a per hundred basis.  There is also a ‘suspension rate’
So let’s compare

100 Students.          Suspensions     Suspension/Students

45 Latino                   31 Latino           .68      
38 Black                   68 Black           1.65
13 White                   6 White.          .46
4 Other

From this little ‘guesstimating’:

Latino students are suspended 1.5 more times than White Students. (math checks out)
Black students are suspended 2.4 more times than Latino students
Black students are suspended 3.6 more times than White Students.

There is also a ‘data trove’ that the BOE has regarding this issue, on a per school/per year basis.
I am sure there are certain schools that ‘stick out’ on either side of the disciplinary curb, as well as the ‘effect’ of certain ‘policy maneuvers’ regarding this issue.

I hear they even employ ‘statisticians’.

It would be productive to hear about that analysis, rather than this dog and pony show.
What, we are almost better at something that has no real baseline?????

I believe there are answers on the inside, and I bet there are some educators out there that have them!!!!

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 22, 2019  9:44pm

The other thing,

3/5th’s first comment on this thread is dead-on!!!!

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 22, 2019  10:07pm

It seems to me that the BOE’s consistent use of ‘averages’ in this presentation is nothing but an obfuscation of some of the extreme behavioral problems that exist in some of our schools on a regular basis.

I challenge Carol Birks and Co. to prove me wrong. 
Let’s see the numbers!

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 22, 2019  10:13pm

KM,

I typo’d again!  (lol)
been looking at too many numbers lately!!!!

but still, my point looms—there is more complete info out there that says more about this important issue.

posted by: ActualNHPSteacher on January 22, 2019  10:52pm

Ok. Here we go. First of all, I’ve taught in New Haven for over 15 years and I have NEVER had a white student in my classroom. My school is not a magnet school, we’re not one of the known “white schools” We’re just a neighborhood school. So, therefore, of course, the statistics will show that students of color are subject to more suspensions. Secondly, principals basically tell the teachers, “Doesn’t matter what the kid did. No one is getting suspended anymore.” So far this year I’ve had 2 students bring knives to school and both times it was swept under the rug. One student in my class is violent and throws objects at other students daily, weekly. Other students feel free to call teachers the “N” word and they know they won’t be suspended. Restorative Practices does not work for all kids. So in the meantime what you have is well behaved kids who are terrorized by these out of control students. And that’s where academics suffer. You can’t have one teacher try and teach 27 students if 2 or 3 of those students are emotionally challenged, out of control and need a smaller environment. The whole class suffers. And I know suspensions don’t work. But if I can get 1 or 2 days of peace to try and educate the majority then I don’t care what color you are: Stay home! As you can see, teachers are overworked, stressed, trying their hardest, and these ridiculous policies from downtown are making teaching in New Haven more and more unappealing.

posted by: JohnTulin on January 23, 2019  8:51am

^^^ Everything ActualNHPSteacher said ^^^

posted by: pray4newhaven on January 23, 2019  9:57am

As a employee I find this very laughable, the reason suspensions are at a all time low is because students are not being suspended. Teachers, security, para’s are being cursed out, assaulted by students daily and nothing is done because the ADMIN’S are instructed not to suspend students. The students know that they cannot be suspended and please do not let them be apart of Youth Stat there is zero consequences!!

posted by: manofthepeople on January 23, 2019  12:41pm

I seem to have understood this article very poorly the first time I read it.

Thanks to everyone for bearing with me.

posted by: ActualNHPSteacher on January 23, 2019  8:15pm

Just a suggestion. If you have any questions about what is REALLY happening in our NHPS classrooms….ASK A TEACHER!!! WHY does no one ask us? Interview us? Get our opinions? Stop getting your stories from the dog and pony show run by downtown. They are so far removed from the day to day realities of being in a classroom. Where are the reporters who want juicy stories about any number of topics? I suggest these topics: the crumbling infrastructure of those brand new schools that got built, lack of adequate supplies to teach, teachers spending their own money to adequately equip their classrooms, lack of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and soap in ALL our bathrooms. Darkened libraries because they took away our librarians. Lack of personnel to run authentic SRBI Interventions. Technology that is obsolete. The “Have and Have Not Schools.” The struggle of teachers who wear a hundred different hats every day: teacher, counselor, therapist, nutritionist, mediator, nurse, mom….There are so many, many subjects that would interest your readers and help them understand what kind of education their children are getting while downtown squabbles amongst themselves. I have no doubt that teachers are fed up, tired of being ignored and marginalized. No one has anything good to say about the new administration. Come and talk to us! We know everything.

posted by: wendy1 on January 23, 2019  10:45pm

PLEASE read GADFLY ON THE WALL and/or THE BATTLE FOR ROOM 314.

Kermit and his cohorts did an intelligent and sobering presentation—-I am listening and give a damn about these children.  Public school teachers, I am here for you.  We need you and you deserve more staff and better pay.  God help us.