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Oklahoma City schools reduce suspensions, but black student rate remains high

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OKC schools are suspending less students overall, but black students are still being suspended at a higher rate. [Thinkstock image]
OKC schools are suspending less students overall, but black students are still being suspended at a higher rate. [Thinkstock image]

While Oklahoma City schools have significantly reduced the number of students it suspends each year, the disproportionate suspension rate of black students remains high.

However, district officials hope a boost in mental health support services next school year will address the disproportionate rates.

Oklahoma City Public Schools issued 40 percent fewer suspensions during the 2016-17 school year, compared to four years earlier. District leaders expect that overall number to be down again when statistics from the most recent school year are released later this summer.

However, of the 3,382 students suspended during the 2016-17 school year, 44 percent were black, despite the fact that black students make up just 24 percent of district enrollment.

Preliminary data shared with The Oklahoman indicates the black suspension rate remained high as black students accounted for 48 percent of suspension during the 2017-18 school year, based on duplicated numbers, which mean the same student is counted separately for each suspension.

A federal complaint was made a few years ago alleging the district discriminated against minority students by punishing them "more frequently and more harshly" than whites, which resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

"Suspensions are important to look at because, at the root level, kids need to be in front of teachers to progress academically," said Chuck Tompkins, director of the district's school climate, discipline and truancy office.

Tompkins said the district has implemented new discipline programs and strategies that he credits for the overall decrease in suspensions. But while he believes the disproportionate rate is trending in the right direction — it was as high as 47 percent for black students just a few years ago — Tompkins said new support services coming into place next school year should help.

"We are on the right trend and we have to continue to increase our supports and interventions for children," Tompkins said. "We can't keep decreasing our suspensions without increasing the supports we offer."

In 2014, when the Office for Civil Rights claimed the district discriminated against black and Hispanic students in the area of discipline, the district responded by partnering with local organizations to offer intervention services for suspended students.

Those alternative-to-suspension programs were discontinued within a year due to budget cuts.

However, both of the district's past two superintendents pointed to the disproportionate suspension rate as a priority issue.

The district pushed for expanded use of new discipline programs and some teachers said leadership made it clear that fewer students should be suspended.

While the overall number of students who were being suspended plummeted, the disproportionate rate remains an issue as a new superintendent prepares to take over the district in July.

New programs

The push to decrease suspensions has not always been well received by teachers, as some have claimed disruptive students are kept in class.

“What I hear is the behavior is still the same and lots of principals are telling their teachers, ‘sorry, I can't suspend,' even when the code of conduct is being violated,” said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “The district will deny that they send that message out to principals, but that's what we are hearing.”

Last year, Allen presented the results of a union survey that found nearly half of teachers said they had a student with a chronic discipline problem who shouldn't be in class.

But Tompkins said the data shows the district has not simply abandoned suspensions as a tool.

"The numbers tell me that we are still suspending kids," Tompkins said. "We have a code of conduct and it has to be followed, and unfortunately out-of-school suspension is a necessity for some kids."

The district has pushed its schools to adopt the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system, a program that has schools create their own climate standards, but sets clear behavioral expectations and intervention plans across all classes.

District officials believe more than half of its schools have embraced the model, which it credits for the suspensions decrease.

Root causes

But while consistent behavioral standards and an intervention process might decrease the overall number of suspensions, district officials blamed the disproportionate rate of black suspensions on a lack of emotional and mental health support.

"What we have found is that our minority students have a higher rate of poverty and a higher rate of what we call the ACEs," said Tompkins, referring to adverse childhood experiences, which are incidents of trauma that research has shown can cause risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions and discipline issues.

"Our minority students have a higher ACE score and in turn they come to school with not just school on their mind," Tompkins said.

The district recently made one of its biggest investments in mental support with the addition of counselors, social workers and behavioral support staff.

Just two years ago, the district had one elementary school counselor for every 1,200 students.

Next year, that ratio will be nearly cut in half, said Terri Bell, executive director of student support services for OKCPS.

"We are getting to the point where we have a number of buildings that will have a full-time counselor," Bell said. "We have also added five social worker positions for next year."

Ruth Veales, who has been on the OKCPS board for eight years, said a cultural disconnect between students and teachers is why she believes the disproportionate rate remains high.

“Teaching is a profession that is predominantly white female teachers, so when you have people who do not understand the population they serve, not only is there a misunderstanding, but there can be an abuse of power,” said Veales, who is black.

Veales said she supports some of the efforts of the district and is hopeful next year's boost in counseling services will help.

But she doesn't believe there has been any significant improvement.

"The data tells me that apparently this issue hasn't been addressed," Veales said. "Then we have a responsibility to go back and re-evaluate to see what works because we haven't found what works yet."

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File photo.

File photo.

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Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the... Read more ›

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