Discipline: Playing the numbers game

If black students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, is that discrimination? The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a Florida school district on charges its discipline policies have a “disparate impact” on black students.

Black students made up 16 percent of Flagler students but accounted for 31 percent of the in- and out-of-school suspensions in the 2010-11 school year, the complaint states. Black students accounted for 69 percent of those expelled.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on School Discipline and Disparate Impact. “Most, but not all of the teachers reported no effort by school administrators to interfere with classroom discipline, but some reported onerous procedural and paperwork burdens before any disruptive student could be removed from class,” according to the executive summary.

School administrators said it’s important to tell students “what the rules are; why the school has those rules, what the consequences are for violating those rules, and being consistent in applying the rules.” (No kidding!)

Jamie Frank, a teacher who’s taught in a variety of schools, said pressure to meet accountability targets affected discipline policies.

. . .  in some school districts teachers were ordered to reduce racially-disparate suspensions in spite of threatening behaviors toward teachers involving weapons. For example, in her school teachers were ordered to substitute a day of “exclusion” at home for what otherwise would have been a suspension. Her view was that the schools felt pressured to pass some minority students through high school regardless of how many days they did not appear for classes to keep graduation numbers high for each racial group.

. . . Ms. Frank said that in her school the administrators were told to reduce their suspension numbers. As a result, they developed a euphemism –“in-school exclusion or intervention” — which allowed the school to avoid reporting the data as suspensions. In addition, the teachers had to fill out a form that required contacting a parent three times before disciplinary action was possible, and that usually a minority student simply reappeared in school even if parents did not respond.

Commissioner Kirsanow asked about the effect of retaining disruptive students on the learning experience.

“Horrible,” said Frank.

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