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School discipline isn't delivered evenly to black and white students. What can educators do?

Nine Network of Public Media

Updated 12:15 p.m., Nov. 5 with audio from the town hall—More than 100 educators, parents and students came together Wednesday, Oct. 28, to talk about the longstanding racial disparities in school suspensions in Missouri.

The state has grappled with the issue for several years, earning headlines in recent years for having the nation’s highest suspension rates.

Town hall participants said educators need more training on things like implicit bias and alternative learning styles. They said schools need more resources to address poverty, mental health and other socioeconomic issues that can hinder a student’s ability to learn or, in some cases, lead them to act out.

The discussion was organized by St. Louis Public Radio, FOCUS St. Louis and the Nine Network and took place at the Nine Network. You can listen to a radio re-broadcast on Thursday, Nov. 5, on St. Louis on the Air at noon and and 10 p.m. on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM.

Maplewood Richmond Heights School District Superintendent Karen Hall said children aren’t cattle to just be herded through the educational system.

“They are in our care,” she said. “We have to be patient, we have to be persistent and we must love them.”

Hall also said its incumbent on educators to find out the reason behind behavioral issues – and address those first.

Amy Hunter, director of racial justice at the YWCA, said nothing will change unless people address institutional racism in the education system.

Last year, black students received 40 percent of the suspensions issued in public schools – even though they make up just 16 percent of the population. That disparity has remained constant for several years.

“When we flip that number for suspension and expulsion rates to expel and suspend 40 percent of white boys in a school, I bet we could figure out some strategies as how to do this different,” Hunter said. 

Original Story

There is a statistic about school suspension rates that is difficult for even the most experienced educators to explain: African Americans make up 16 percent of the k-12 school population in Missouri. But 40 percent of all school suspensions are given to African American students.

"Awareness of the issue is half of the battle, and acknowledgement of the fact that there is an issue," said Margie Vandeven, commissioner of Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "I think for so long, many in our state have said, ‘There’s really not an issue.’ If you would have asked five years ago about implicit bias, I think you’d get different response than what you’re getting today.”   

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, at 6:30 p.m. St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network and FOCUS St. Louis are a holding a town hall forum called Suspended Futures: The School Discipline Debate to explore why school discipline is meted out disproportionately to African Americans and what can be done to change this. The event will be live-streamed or you can listen to a re-broadcast on Thursday, Nov. 5 on St. Louis on the Air at noon and and 10 p.m.

The 90-minute event brings students, educators and community leaders together to create further awareness of the issue. St. Louis Public Radio's Tim Lloyd will host the event along with Nine Network of Public Media's Jim Kirchherr. Featured panelists are:

During the meeting, there will be short videos of discussions with students and educators as well as an excerpt of an interview Tim Lloyd conducted with  Vandeven, Missouri Commissioner of Education.

On the fact that African American students only make up 16 percent of all students in Missouri, yet received 40 percent of suspensions last school year, according to state data.

I think it’s very concerning.  But I think the issue is deeper than the discipline rates. I think we need to look at is what’s happening in some of those communities, some of those schools. How are our teachers being trained to go into classrooms?  One of the areas we’re seeing a real focus on is, how do we deescalate those situations?

There are wide levels of discretion in school district discipline policies. DESE can’t make changes on its own, but should there be state-wide discipline guidelines and possible punishments in Missouri?

I still think our local boards are still most empowered to make the decisions about what happens in those districts. I think we’re seeing how ‘zero-tolerance’ policies are working in some cultures and climates, not so well in others.  I think that’s something individual boards have looked at and said, ‘you know, zero-tolerance policy is not effective for our school district.’  And they’ve tried to seek out other interventions.  Are we there yet? We are not.  But I still have confidence in our local school boards that they’re going to continue to make really good decisions for their kids once they’re aware of the issue. Awareness of the issue is half of the battle, and acknowledgement of the fact that there is an issue.  I think for so long, many in our state have said, ‘there’s really not an issue.’ If you would have asked five years ago about implicit bias, I think you’d get different response than what you’re getting today. 

Should educators be paying closer intention to implicit racial bias to ensure all students are being treated fairly?

We absolutely need to be paying attention to that. I think most people believe they get up every day without that level of bias … It’s really making sure that we hold the same level of expectations for all of our kids.

The Ferguson Commission recommends banning out of school suspensions for Kindergarten through third grade students.  Should Missouri allow students that young to receive out of school suspensions?

I, personally do not believe they should be given out of school suspensions.  There are some safe school violations that are required by law (to remove a child).  But if we’re really looking at the benefit of the individual child, our children are much better served – if it’s that extreme – to go into some kind of intervention and not simply out on the street.          I think our first step is talking with, educating our local boards…The research is becoming more and more clear, really when (students) are acting out it’s due to ‘toxic-stress.’  There’s a fine balance because you want to make sure that the classroom is safe environment for all the children who are there. I think you’re seeing many and many school districts that are moving toward an intervention.

Listen to a portion of Tim Lloyd's interview with Margie Vandeven.

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Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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