'This is why our parents are angry': OPS officials frustrated by racial disparity in discipline

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Monday, July 18, Erin Duffy, Omaha World-Herald

Black students in the Omaha Public Schools continue to sit in detention, face expulsion and get suspended at higher rates than their white and Hispanic classmates, a new report shows.

Over the past three years, the overall number of behavior incidents in the district has remained fairly steady. However, the use of more severe punishments such as long-term suspensions and expulsions are trending downward.

One common denominator remains — a high percentage of discipline incidents involve black students.

The situation has left several school board members frustrated. “This is why our parents are angry. This is why our parents don’t have trust in our district,” board vice president Yolanda Williams said. “For me, this is one of those issues I’m not going to back down from. All of those great things we’re doing are negated when we look at this data.”

Several studies nationally have shown that black students can be punished more harshly than their white classmates for similar infractions. But it’s a complex issue, and OPS officials say it’s not as simple as insensitive teachers or certain groups of kids acting out more than others.

In the upcoming school year, several initiatives are aimed at improving student behavior and providing more support to kids prone to disrupting class, but it probably will take time to see a change in discipline disparities.

The school board reviewed discipline numbers from the past three years at its meeting on Monday, including a breakdown by race and ethnicity.

Like many school districts in the nation, OPS is grappling with how to maintain order and safety in classrooms while ensuring that students don’t miss too much class time due to suspensions or expulsions — or get punished more harshly based on race.

Last year, state education officials told the district that it must shift $1.85 million in federal funds to staff training as a sanction for suspending a disproportionate number of black special education students in 2011 and 2012.

For each of the past three school years, OPS research staff tallied districtwide discipline numbers from the start of the school year to April 1.

The numbers show:

  • There were 78,984 total behavior incidents in 2015-16, which includes disciplinary actions such as suspensions, expulsions and detentions. That’s up slightly from the 2014-15 school year, but down from the 81,844 incidents recorded in 2013-14.
  • Black students made up roughly 25 percent of the student population, but behavior incidents involving black students accounted for 55 percent of all incidents last year.
  • Expulsions — when a student is kicked out and can’t return to that school — were down dramatically over the three years, but nearly 60 percent of the 227 expulsions last year involved black students.
  • 83 percent of reassignments — when a student gets sent to a different school — involved black students.

“We were told for the last three years (these numbers) would get better, and they haven’t,” school board member Justin Wayne said.

The numbers weren’t broken down by gender, grade level, school or special education status.

During the 2015-16 school year, OPS rolled out a new student code of conduct, a rulebook of sorts that lays out the district’s positions and punishments for violations such as fighting, drug possession, vandalism and bullying.

The new code was intended to be more flexible and to present principals and other administrators with more alternatives to handing down suspensions or calling in police. Violations were split into four categories, with different responses depending on the severity of the infraction.

So, a student involved in a minor fight that didn’t cause injuries could face detention or an after-school suspension. Or officials could instead opt to call their parents, contact a social worker or help the student enroll in a mentoring program. The previous conduct code was more focused on punitive actions.

Because the revised code has only been in effect for a year, it’s hard to estimate the affect that it had on the discipline rates last school year, said Scott Schmidtbonne, OPS’s director of research. As teachers and administrators get more familiar with the changes, more tangible effects could be seen, he said.

“The disproportionality in discipline for African-American students continues to be a problem within the district,” he said. “These students are much more likely than others to be disciplined in ways that lead to significant losses of instructional time.”

OPS’s five-year strategic plan calls for the district to decrease suspensions and expulsions and shrink the gap between suspension rates for white and black students.

Those disparities exist at the local and national level; recently released federal data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for the 2013-14 school year show that black students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended at least once when compared with white students.

“What we see going on is also happening at a national level,” said Bridget Donovan, the incoming president of OPS’s teachers union, the Omaha Education Association. “This is not a Nebraska issue. It’s a national issue.”

She said all community members need to come together to have tough, candid conversations about race, respect, discipline and the underlying problems — such as poverty, mental health and trauma — that can spur bad behavior in the classroom.

“This is the only way we’re going to make an impact, to make a difference, when we’re all at the table together — parents, teachers, the administration and students,” Donovan said. “We need parents there as much as any other group. And just as importantly, we all have to stop blaming one another.”

District officials point to several efforts that could lend more support to students and curb behavior problems.

Over the next four years, a $7.4 million grant from the Sherwood Foundation will bring 36 more social workers to high-needs elementary and middle schools. Teachers continue to receive training on diversity and relationship-building from the nonprofit Minnesota Humanities Center, and a Project Harmony program called Connections links K-8 students with mental health and counseling services.

And starting in August, a dozen schools will pilot a new behavior plan, called the multi-tiered system of support for behavior (MTSS-B). The new system includes tiers of intervention that increase as student misbehavior or problems escalate.

OPS began putting the system in place after being penalized by the state for its suspension rates for black special-education students.

At the board meeting, several principals said there are bright spots. Northwest High Principal Tom Lee said enrollment at his school is up, but discipline referral rates are down 21 percent and suspensions are down 5 percent. He credited that to steps that staff members have taken to better connect with students, increase involvement in clubs or sports and connect them with mental health services through the on-site school-based health clinic.

“We feel good about the direction we’re going,” he said.

Benson West Elementary Principal Monica Green said she has tried to make her school a more welcoming place for parents, who can help teachers work through discipline problems.

She mentioned meeting with the parents of two students, repeat offenders who were disrupting the classroom and kicking, scratching and biting.

“I said, ‘Listen, I’m not calling you because I’m judging you or you’re in trouble, I’m calling you because I need your help,’ ” she said.

Wayne, the school board member, said he’d like to see more interventions early on for struggling kids, more paraprofessionals and behavior specialists at schools, and the return of a middle school alternative program, something teachers and administrators have clamored for. The district closed Wilson Alternative Middle School in 2011 due to budget cuts and the need for a location for its focus school.

Williams, the board’s vice president, said she’s hopeful that the new initiatives will help teachers control their classrooms and students receive the guidance they need.

“There’s good stuff coming, but it doesn’t fix it now,” she said.

Originally posted by Omaha World-Herald