The group Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT) is taking Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens to task over racial disparities in student suspensions and other disciplinary action.
An equity scorecard released by the school district on Monday shows African-American students are more likely to be disciplined than their white classmates in Louisville’s public school system.
Black students make up 60 percent of all suspensions even though they are just 37 percent of the overall population. Other disciplinary outcomes detailed in the report show among middle school aged children, for instance, that 43 percent of African-Americans were suspended at least once compared to just 14 percent of whites.
Those figures are infuriating to progressive activists who for years have called the district’s code of conduct unfair and punitive, especially towards non-white students.
“It just reinforces what we already know,” says the Rev. David Snardon, who is co-president of CLOUT. “When are we going to stop knowing and when are we going to do something about the problem? CLOUT has presented a solution to this problem instead of just spinning our wheels, and even has identified zero tolerance as being one of those policies that keeps these sort of systems in place that don’t help our children, but really hinder them.”
Last December, CLOUT held a seminar urging principals and administrators to adopt alternatives to zero tolerance in cases not involving drugs or firearms. Those restorative practices include a wide range of responses such as better communication between staff and students.
A study conducted by JCPS found “exclusionary discipline is ineffective” at reducing bad behavior and Hargens did express interest towards a restorative model initially.
Assistant Superintendent John David Marshall says the district has been putting more emphasis on those alternative measures. He admits the district needs to do a better job defining certain violations such as “disruptive behavior,” but he disputed claims that racial bias is built-in the disciplinary code.
“There are concerns with the disproportionate occurrences and how they are issued, but we’re of the opinion that there’s a lot of things that need to be brought to light,” he says. “We do recognize and we don’t shy away from the fact there’s a disproportionate amount of students being suspended from the African-American group versus the other group. But saying there’s a known bias, we don’t know if we can really say that.”
Asked if JCPS kept a zero tolerance policy in light of their study that found it increased misbehavior and dropout rates, Marshall told WFPL neither the language or term was in place. But a review of the district’s 2013-14 code of conduct shows zero tolerance is still applied to at least two dozen violations that don’t include guns or narcotics.
Restorative practices were codified in the code this year to manage some conflicts among students and Marshall says it’s a possibility in the coming years. A JCPS spokesperson says principals have “received some training” on alternative discipline with over a dozen inquiring about additional courses.
CLOUT members argue limited training sessions are not sufficient and that Hargens needs to apply a new policy district-wide rather than allowing schools to volunteer individually.
“JCPS’s own research in 2012 shows that zero tolerance policies are racially biased and they don’t work,” says Rev. Snardon. “So my gut reaction is one of confusion and anger, because something that you know is racially bias and your research continually shows what you already know, and you refuse to move away from it.”
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