Suspensions are down this year in Jefferson County Public Schools, but officials warn the district needs more proof before saying what works.
African American students make up the bulk of those suspensions (about two-thirds). But data presented to the school board Monday night suggests the group saw a decrease of around 10 percent in the first four months of this school year, which is on par with white students.
That’s a positive start to the year when considering the racial disparities that have existed in the past. For example, between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years suspensions decreased for white students by 20 percent, while suspensions decreased for black students by 6 percent.
A closer look at the data shows the rate of suspensions for fighting are nearly even, but suspensions for violating a school’s dress code disproportionately affects black students and this concerns some school board members.
It’s not just a JCPS issue.
That’s what officials told the school board Monday night. In fact, President Obama even released recommendations this month to help stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline, which includes over-suspending students and bad “zero-tolerance” policies.
One group called Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together has been critical about how zero-tolerance is practiced in JCPS, but district leaders insists it only uses zero-tolerance at appropriate times.
Over the past three years, suspensions in JCPS have been cut from 16,522 to 13,572, officials say. But it’s not yet clear if those fewer suspensions result in positive learning environments and improved academic outcomes for all JCPS students, officials said Monday.
Judi Vanderhaar is a JCPS researcher and data analyst who studies the numbers. She says some districts like Miami-Dade in Florida have had strong policies in place for a while, which is why it’s seeing results.
In JCPS, school leaders have the power to create an appropriate discipline plan that fits their schools, based off the district’s code of conduct.
But inside the schools, Vanderhaar says there’s a wide range of discipline responses educators have to behavior issues in the classroom. For example, students have been suspended for being rude in class to actually throwing objects. Both fall under the behavior category.
“One of the issues is that it’s such a big umbrella so that what disruptive behavior is in one school can be very different than what disruptive behavior is in another school. And then within any school disruptive behavior in one teacher’s class is very different than what it is in another teacher’s class,” she says.
Suspensions for disruptive behavior, which is among the top five reasons students are suspended, are down 15 percent this year. But the key is to make sure all teachers have the supports and professional development necessary to handle their classroom, officials say.
Also, school leaders should be discussing with teachers any issues that may be leading to more suspensions, although its a delicate balance, Vanderhaar acknowledges.
The district has many initiatives in place to help its neediest kids, including Student Response Teams that target specific incidents and try to mitigate problems. Another group of 44 schools has begun to implement Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports, known as PBIS, which is a nationally proven program that involves buy-in from staff.
But Vanderhaar says JCPS needs more time to find out what’s working. Generally, a program needs to be implemented for three years to be analyzed, she says.
Other concerns came from Debbie Wesslund who said she has been receiving more calls than usual about disruptive classrooms. Linda Duncan questions why the range of punishment is so large; some students committing the same foul aren’t getting the same punishment, the data shows.
Superintendent Donna Hargens says this is exactly what the district is looking into.
“We know we’ll get there when we’re decreasing suspensions and maintaining an orderly learning environment and we have data that will indicate when we get there,” she says.
The school board will have a public work session on Feb. 10 to further discuss school discipline.
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