This a preview of an upcoming episode of St. Louis Public Radio’s We Live Here, a podcast that explores race, class, power and poverty in the St. Louis region and beyond. Listen to the full version here.
Black students in Missouri and the rest of the country are far more likely to receive out of school suspensions. And this school year St. Louis Public Schools became one of the few districts in the nation to ban out-of-school suspensions for its youngest students.
Officials say the move has pushed them to rethink student discipline.
“I think the policy did two things,” said Superintendent Kelvin Adams. “It forced us as a district to acknowledge that we had a problem. Secondly to force me as a superintendent to find resources to support schools and force principals to come up with different kinds of strategies to support kids in that building. I think it really changed everybody's mindset around what needs to be done to support the kid.”
Overall, suspensions were down in the district for all grades through the first four weeks of the school year, according to Adams.
Normally, there would have been 400 suspensions during that time frame.
This year, Adams said, have been about 100.
And, true to the ban, no out-of-school suspensions have been given to students in preschool through second grade, he said.
The district continues to funnel more resources toward schools in an effort to help teachers and principals continue to meet the new guideline.
Thanks in part to the passage of a tax increase last spring, the district has added 23 support staff members. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was giving St. Louis, Baltimore and Chicago millions in federal money to do more mental health work in schools, with $1.4 million going to SLPS. NicoleConaway, former principal at Mann Elementary in the Tower Grove South neighborhood, is monitoring to make sure schools are providing adequate learning environments for students serving in-school suspensions.
Still, Adams acknowledged that more needs to be done to support teachers and that he understood the sentiment among some educators that they were not adequately prepared for the ban.
“This is a work in progress, we realize and understand that,” Adams said. “Yes, we put a rule down. Yes, we're providing some intervention staff to support them. But at the end of the day it becomes the classroom teacher working with kids. And that's where the rubber meets the road.”
Staff at Adams Elementary in Forest Park Southeast had already started taking steps to reduce suspensions before the new discipline guideline was put into place. Nevertheless, the school’s principal, Cameron Coleman, said his staff was surprised by the new rule.
“I do think that the concept is a healthy one,” Coleman said. “But I think that there are levels of preparation that that should happen.”
Last fall, Adams became one of seven elementary schools in the district to take part in a five-year, pilot training program run by Saint Louis University Criminologist Norm White. The program, called Shut it Down and funded through a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health, seeks to reduce suspension and improve racial equity in the classroom.
Through the training, staff at Adams adopted the practice of restorative justice. When students misbehave in class, they are sent to a special room where they are asked to reflect on their behavior with staff and consider the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, the goal is to work toward reconciliation and develop a plan to avoid such behavior in the future.
Coleman said while putting a restorative justice program in place was an adjustment for staff, so far, the results have been promising.
“Students feel very free to talk about what they're going through and what drove their behavior because they know nothing negative is going to come from it,” Coleman said. “We call it trust."