Suspension disparity starts in preschool

Graphic by Bill Kuchman/POLITICO

Yes, it’s possible to be suspended from preschool — especially if you’re black. Black children make up 18 percent of preschoolers but 48 percent of students suspended more than once, according to the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Across K-12 schools, black students represented 16 percent of the student population but 42 percent suspended more than once in the 2011-12 school year.

If not suspension, then what?

California schools are reducing suspension rates, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.

Pressed by law enforcement, civil-rights advocates and the realization that the way they disciplined students was failing, schools are keeping on campus more kids who talk back, throw tantrums or even threaten teachers.

Some educators say they’ve found better alternatives. Five years ago, Yerba Buena High in East San Jose lost 1,062 days to suspension. Last school year, that was down to 23 days. “Suspending students is not effective,” said Yerba Buena Principal Tom Huynh.

Instead of sending students home on a mini-vacation, YB requires detention. At a recent session, a counselor talked about her own rebellious childhood.

Oak Grove High, which serves high-poverty San Jose neighborhoods, uses detention, Saturday school or litter patrol, as well as referrals to a counselor, anger-management help or a substance abuse support group.

But some teachers say “taking away the option to suspend creates a disciplinary void and sticks them with rowdy or even dangerous kids in class,” writes Noguchi.

 “For an experienced teacher who knows how to deal with intense behavioral management — we get that,” said one Oakland Unified teacher who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal. “But for a new teacher, it’s a disaster.”

Even worse, Oakland teachers allege, the pressure not to suspend has led schools to fudge their numbers by not documenting fights or even weapons violations, or the ensuing punishments.

Oakland Unified was forced to reduce suspensions as part of a settlement with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Instead, the district promotes “restorative justice,” which “tries to get scofflaws to make amends, combatants to reconcile and students to come to terms with any harm they’ve done.” The district stresses conflict resolution and support for African-American boys.

“All of this is done to try to put a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It leaves a lot of kids feeling unsafe,” one teacher said.

You can look at school suspension rates by district, courtesy of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which is leading the anti-suspension crusade.

Study: Waivers leave behind at-risk students

“At-risk students could fall through the cracks” as federal waivers let states ignore No Child Left Behind’s accountability rules, according to an analysis by the Campaign for High School Equity.

Forty states, the District of Columbia and a group of California districts have received Education Department waivers.

. . . students who are at the highest risk of dropping out – those from poor families, students whose native language is not English, those with learning disabilities and minority students – are often no longer tracked as carefully as they were before (Arne) Duncan began exempting states from some requirements if they promised to better prepare their students for college or careers.

“It appears to us that waivers could lead to fewer students of color receiving the support they need,” said Rufina Hernandez, executive director for the campaign, a coalition of civil rights groups.

Williams: ‘Corrupt’ leaders ignore bad schools

“Corrupted” by teachers union money, black leaders who spoke at Saturday’s March on Washington failed to speak out against bad schools, charged Fox News contributor Juan Williams on “The O’Reilly Factor.” The march commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

King would “stand up and act against bad schools that are condemning these kids to useless lives because they never have an opportunity to climb that ladder of upward mobility,” Williams said. “And the civil rights challenge of this generation is education, and Dr. King would never allow anybody to buy his silence, to buy him off, to sell out the kids and that’s what’s happening right now.”

Teachers’ unions have given tens of thousands of dollars to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and NAACP because “they don’t want those civil rights leaders to ever stand up and say yes to charter schools, yes to vouchers, yes to school reform,” Williams charged.

Civil rights leaders are “selling out,” Williams said. “And that is corruption and it’s corruption of a great movement.”

Why people fight to save bad schools

Can a bad school be good for the neighborhood? asks Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly.

It’s very difficult to “turnaround” a chronically low-performing school, he writes. By contrast, closing a bad school and starting from scratch “can move the quality curve to the right.” That’s his argument in  The Urban School System of the Future.

Furthermore, some arguments for keeping bad schools open are unpersuasive, he writes.

Their “closures-are-a-civil-rights-violation” argument causes most to reply, “It’s a far greater violation to force low-income African American and Latino children to remain in failing, unsafe schools.”

However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that closing a school — even a failing, unsafe school — will destabilize the neighborhood, making things even worse, Smarick writes. It’s clear that “good schools are a powerful asset for troubled neighborhoods.” But “every school, even the lowest-performing, is woven into the fabric of its neighborhood—and tugging on that thread affects the entire cloth.”

Even if educationally dysfunctional, the school likely has its share of caring, educated adults who serve as role models and mentors for needy children.

The school may serve as the community hub for social services or civic activities.

Maybe its athletic teams still serve as a source of community pride.

. . . Maybe the neighborhood sees that school as the last thing that is actually theirs. Other families moved away. Businesses shut down. Churches closed their doors. But their school remains.

In There Are No Children Here Alex Kotlowitz describes how two boys try to survive in a dangerous Chicago housing project. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

Closing bad schools — a civil rights issue?

Closing or reorganizing low-performing urban schools discriminates against black and Hispanic students whose schools are most likely to be targeted, charge community activists in the Journey for Justice Movement.

Closing neighborhood schools is “a violation of our human rights,” said Jitu Brown, an organizer from the South Side of Chicago, in a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan yesterday.

Helen Moore, an organizer from Detroit, said the current reform movement is tantamount to racism. “We are now reverting back to slavery,” she said. “All the things that are happening are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we’ll fight to the death.”

The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating civil rights complaints against Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark. Closure plans in New York, Chicago and Washington also have been challenged. However, 27 investigations in the last few years found no bias in school closures. Duncan’s spokesman, Daren Briscoe, said the Education Department doesn’t have the power to order a moratorium on school closings. (Finally, there’s something the feds think is out of their jurisdiction!)

Why would anyone fight to the death for schools with low test scores, high dropout rates — and empty classrooms?

Urban schools aren’t just a place for education, says Sarah Garland, author of Divided We Fail on the end of school segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. “For most people their high school is part of who they are and who the community is.”

Ed Dept: Disabled have right to compete in sports

Disabled students must have “equal access” to school sports, the U.S. Education Department ruled Friday. If there’s no “reasonable” way to include disabled athletes on school teams, schools must set up separate programs.

“Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student’s overall educational experience,” said Seth Galanter, of the department’s civil rights office. “Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities,” he added.

The directive doesn’t require schools to open sports teams to everyone, regardless of athletic ability, officials said. But it’s not all clear what will be considered “reasonable.” One example — providing “visual clues” in addition to a starter pistol to allow hearing disabled students to compete in track events — seems like the sort of thing any school would and should do. The second — waiving the “two-hand touch” finish at swim meets to allow one-armed swimmers to compete — also seems fair. But it raises a question: Can a one-armed student swim fast enough to make the team?

In 1972, Title IX forced schools to offer equal athletic opportunities to girls. But there are lots of girls in high schools. There aren’t that many one-armed students who want to compete in swimming.

It was also welcomed by disabled student competitors, among them Casey Followay, a 15-year-old high school track athlete confined to a wheelchair by a birth defect, who under current rules, has to race on his own.

“This will help me become a better athlete conditioning- wise, because I have something to push for,” said Followay, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in 2011 asking that he be allowed to run alongside, but not against, the able-bodied.

If he’s not running against able-bodied runners, is he really on the team? He needs to compete against other wheelchair athletes. Schools are supposed to work with community groups to set up regional teams, if they don’t have enough disabled athletes in each sport. That could be expensive.

“The problem is this was done without any deliberation in Congress and no public input and it is not clear how expansive it will be,” says Fordham’s Mike Petrilli. “Just how far must a school district go to be compliant?”

Expect lawsuits charging “separate and unequal” sports opportunities for disabled students, predicts Rick Hess in When Good Intentions Run Amok.

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.

Feds will monitor suspensions for racial bias

Federal officials will monitor 38 Oakland schools charged with suspending too many black male students, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Almost 20 percent of the district’s African American males were suspended at least once last year, six times the rate of white boys.

In middle school, 1 out of every 3 black boys was suspended at least once.

The board approved a five-year plan that includes mentoring, teacher training, parent education and programs to address the impact of trauma and community violence on student behavior. In addition, the plan calls for “restorative justice” as an alternative to suspension. Students, parents and school officials meet to encourage  “the offender taking responsibility and making amends.”

The district already has an Office of African-American Male Achievement, which has created programs such as a daily after-school “manhood development” class at Edna Brewer Middle School for 24 black males.

As the boys built drums out of wood and tape, their instructor, who goes only by Jahi, described the benefit of working with the boys, giving them help with their homework and encouragement to focus on school and their futures.

“We try to create this culture of success,” he said. “We can’t change what’s happening outside in the world.”

Eighth-grader William Bolanos, 13, said he’d had some trouble in the past at school, with a few suspensions on his record.

But that won’t happen this year, with help from Jahi’s class.

“It just shows you how to be a man, a leader, a big brother to people,” he said. “I’m just going to try to get honor roll this year.”

Brewer Middle, a relatively high-scoring school, is 34 percent Asian, 31 percent black, 16 percent Latino and 13 percent white. And, no, the district doesn’t have a special office for any other racial or ethnic group.

Implementing the plan — including  “comprehensive and frequent documentation to prove compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964″ — will cost the district “millions,” according to the Chronicle.

Discipline by race

Racial quotas in school discipline could be coming to Maryland, writes Hans Bader in the Examiner.

“As a lawyer who used to bring civil-rights cases for a living, I am very disturbed” by the Maryland State Board of Education’s proposed school discipline policy, Bader writes.

This proposed rule violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by pressuring schools to discipline students based on their race, rather than their individual conduct and the content of their character.

. . . (The rule) would require school systems to discipline and suspend students in numbers roughly in proportion to their racial percentage of the student body, and require school systems that currently don’t do so to implement plans to eliminate any racially “disproportionate impact” over a three-year period. Thus, it is imposing quotas in all but name.

The Obama administration has supported the use of “disparate impact” to evaluate school discipline policies.

The Maryland board also wants schools to discipline special education students — including those diagnosed with behavioral disorders — at the ame rate as other students. However, there’s no plan for gender balance in school discipline.

Of course, reducing out-of-school suspensions makes a lot of sense, if it can be done without threatening the safety of other students.