Black students at schools in Wichita and surrounding districts are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers, a trend that mirrors racial disparities throughout the country, according to the most comprehensive survey of school civil rights data in nearly 15 years.
The findings, part of an expansive survey of America’s public schools by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, shows that black students are more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled at middle and high schools in Wichita and most area districts.
Education officials say it’s difficult to pinpoint reasons for the disparities. But local civil rights advocates say overzealous discipline policies or practices continue to target minority students, pulling them out of classrooms and often into the court system.
“Statistics speak for themselves,” said David Gilkey, a gang prevention coordinator for the Urban League of Kansas.
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“Nothing changes if nothing changes, you know what I mean?” Gilkey said. “It’s been going on for years. This is not nothing new. We just don’t usually talk about it, but it’s coming to the point where we need to address it now.”
Data for the 2010-11 school year shows that nationally, while black students represented 16 percent of overall school enrollment, they represented 32 percent of students suspended in school, 33 percent of students suspended out of school, and 34 percent of students expelled.
In Wichita public schools, black students made up about 18 percent of total enrollment in 2010-11. They accounted for nearly 22 percent of in-school suspensions, 25.6 percent of out-of-school suspensions and nearly 34 percent of expulsions.
Discipline data for certain Wichita schools – accessible to the public online via the federal government’s searchable database – showed starker disparities.
At Southeast High School, for example, black students made up about 29 percent of the student body but nearly 82 percent of in-school suspensions and 46 percent of out-of-school suspensions. At West High, blacks made up about 16 percent of the school population but a third of in-school suspensions and more than a fourth of out-of-school suspensions.
Disparities also were pronounced at some suburban districts.
In Andover, black students made up about 2 percent of the student body but nearly 8 percent of in-school suspensions. In Derby schools, blacks made up about 5 percent of the population but more than 10 percent of in-school suspensions, 12 percent of out-of-school suspensions and more than 19 percent of expulsions. And in Maize, black students made up about 3 percent of the population but nearly 19 percent of in-school suspensions and nearly 10 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
Maize high schools no longer have in-school suspension, officials said, and the federal data reflects that. The data does, however, show in-school suspensions at the district’s two middle schools.
Doug Powers, superintendent for Maize, said a few students suspended multiple times can skew overall numbers and percentages.
Even so, “Do we need to further look at that? Yes, and we need to break that down in every way that we can,” Powers said.
“We are fairly non-ethnic here in Maize. We’re pretty white. So does that play into perceptions and attitudes of staff, of students, in that whole process?
“I’m sure it does to a certain extent because we’re human, and that plays a role in our lives.”
‘School to prison’
Earlier this year, leaders of the federal departments of education and justice released guidance to schools across the nation on how to break the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline.
The first-of-its-kind school discipline guidance urges districts to rethink policies that lead to classroom removal for non-violent offenses. It also spells out districts’ obligations under federal civil rights laws to review and track the impact of disciplinary policies to ensure that they don’t unfairly discriminate against racial or ethnic groups.
School leaders also should seek alternatives to “exclusionary” penalties like suspension and expulsion that rob students of valuable classroom time, said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue,” Duncan said during a visit to a Baltimore high school earlier this year, when the new guidelines were released.
“Schools should remove students from the classroom as a last resort, and only for appropriately serious infractions, like endangering the safety of other students, teachers or themselves,” he said. “Unfortunately today, suspensions and expulsions are not primarily used as a last resort for serious infractions.”
Wichita school officials said they see suspensions and expulsions as last resorts, and students rarely are kicked out of school completely.
More often, they are reassigned to a different school or to an alternative program such as Gateway or Sowers Alternative High School.
“I’m not in the business of putting children out of schools and on the street. For heaven’s sake, that’s the last thing we want,” said Klaus Kollmai, hearing officer for the Wichita district, who oversees about 800 hearings a year for students whose principals have recommended extended suspensions or reassignment.
“We don’t want them on the streets. We don’t want them in the juvenile system. We want them to get an education.”
Bill Faflick, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said Wichita principals regularly monitor behavior reports, along with trends in the number of suspensions and expulsions, and are encouraged that the district’s data shows less of a racial disparity than the national average.
“Our work’s not done,” Faflick said. “We talk about trying to close the achievement gap. But we’re trying to close the discipline gap as well, and we work very hard to make that happen.”
In recent years, Wichita schools have implemented several measures intended to improve behavior and establish consistency across the district – most notably the Safe & Civil Schools program, adopted four years ago in response to increasing numbers of suspensions and expulsions.
The program, designed by education consultant Randy Sprick, categorizes problem behaviors into three tiers: Tier 1 includes minor problems such as chewing gum or not bringing required supplies to class; Tier 2, issues such as horseplay or inappropriate outbursts; and Tier 3, serious offenses such as fighting, weapons or sexual misconduct.
Teachers learn techniques to talk with students to try to de-escalate problem behaviors before they require a trip to the principal’s office and possible detention or suspension.
Faflick said the guidelines provide a blueprint for teachers and administrators that prevents discriminatory practices.
“If a kid is misbehaving, a kid is misbehaving,” he said. “We’re looking at the behavior, not at their socioeconomic level, not at their gender, not at their race.
“Anybody understands that race is always an issue in society, but that’s why we have guidelines. That’s why we have procedures in place, to try to minimize the impact so we really look at that blind to those factors.”
Gilkey, who meets with high school students regularly as part of the Urban League’s gang prevention program, said black students complain to him regularly about discipline being meted out unfairly by certain teachers or administrators.
During a recent discussion, a high school freshman told Gilkey he received two lunch detentions for chewing gum in class. A junior said he received detentions for rolling a penny back to a classmate after she had thrown it at him. Others said they get called down regularly for talking or laughing loudly, disrespect, horseplay or dress code violations.
“If it’s a rule, it’s a rule. Enforce the rule,” Gilkey said. “But you gotta be fair. Rules are for everybody.”
Linda Rhone, a member of the teaching faculty at Southwestern College in Winfield, said a lack of diversity among public school teachers – more than 80 percent are white, middle class and female – is one “elephant in the room” when it comes to discipline disparities.
Two years ago, Rhone led an 18-month project aimed at helping a small group of Wichita fifth-grade teachers better understand and value students from diverse backgrounds.
What they learned is reflected in the recent discipline data, which Rhone says is “important but old news.”
“Lack of critical multicultural knowledge can hinder a teacher’s ability to work through a behavior problem with a student,” she said. “If our teachers can connect with their students, their students are less likely to be sent out of the classroom and ultimately suspended.”
Rhone said there’s no magic solution to lessening racial disparities, but strategies should start before preschool and be focused on empowering students of all races.
“It is going to take school, district, state and national-level commitments to disrupt this injustice,” she said.
Several Wichita principals said they hand down punishments based on established expectations and regardless of race or other factors. The overall goal, they said: Making sure one student’s behavior doesn’t distract, disturb or even endanger others.
“I will tell you that I discipline kids – white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, they all know what my expectations are,” said Leroy Parks, principal at Southeast High School in Wichita.
Discipline data for Southeast, which showed black students being suspended at much higher rates than other races, is “alarming,” said Parks, who is black.
“But at the same time, we have to be careful how we look at that data,” he said. “What it should do is force us to start having some conversations about the why behind it and what can we do in response to it. … The conversation needs to happen at all levels.”
Sherman Padgett, principal at North High School, said he understands concerns over the disproportionate number of black students being suspended and expelled, “but there are so many other ingredients involved.”
Research shows black students are more likely to come from homes of poverty and many have special-education needs. Besides that, Padgett said, overall numbers like those in new federal data don’t reflect everything leading up to a suspension or expulsion – a process that usually involves numerous infractions, interventions and second chances.
“You kind of want to say, ‘How many different factors are there that lead to this?’ ” he said. “We deal with students, not numbers, and they come here with a variety of challenges.”
Suspension and expulsion data for suburban districts also showed marked racial disparities.
Greg Rasmussen, superintendent for Andover schools, said educators in his district, which is more than 82 percent white, focus on addressing diverse learning styles rather than various races or ethnicities.
“Trying to design learning for a wide variety of student needs and backgrounds, whether it’s socioeconomic or race or whatever kind of diversity, I think that’s a challenging task for all teachers,” Rasmussen said.
Behavior expectations are established well before secondary schools, when most suspensions and expulsions are handed out. And most districts could do a better job setting students up for success, he said.
“When kids are struggling readers, we work with them and we work with them,” he said. “But when it comes to discipline, sometimes we’re quick to just punish instead of teach.
“Part of what we’ve got to continue to do is have consistent and clear expectations for our kids. … Teaching them behaviors is just as important as academics in our schools.”