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La. school suspension rates soar above national average

9th May 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

Without a standardized policy for out-of-school suspensions, many of the schools in New Orleans’ all-charter Recovery School District (RSD) have been suspending kids at astonishing rates.

The past decade is filled with stories of students suspended indefinitely or for 20 or 30 days, and students being kicked out of school for infractions as minor as having on the wrong color belt or socks, arriving a few minutes late, or wearing a facial expression deemed (subjectively) as “willful disobedience.”

But the problem of out-of-school suspensions being used too often, and at disproportionate rates for students of color and with special needs, is not isolated to the RSD. It’s not isolated to charter schools, or to New Orleans. It’s a growing problem nationwide, with particularly alarming numbers in Louisiana.

Some of the districts in Louisiana with the highest rates are large and urban, but others are small and rural.

According to recent state data, Louisiana schoolchildren are suspended at rates 130 percent higher than the national average.

Two bills have now been introduced in the state legislature to help schools develop better discipline policies and reduce out-of-school suspensions – as punishment research shows it’s ineffective for improving behavior, detrimental academically, and a contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline.

On one hand, it’s very obvious – if kids are not in school, they are not learning. Worse, unsupervised kids on the streets of a city struggling with high crime rates, more often than not find themselves in trouble. But it’s not just the older kids.

According to a 2014 study by the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), elementary children, in particular, experience suspension at rates 200 percent higher than the national average.

There’s also the question of the wisdom of giving taxpayer dollars to schools who are keeping a significant number of their students out of the classroom.

The 2014 study shows that a total of 62,580 days of school missed by students in Louisiana equates to $3.72 million spent on students not present in class and thus not receiving the instruction for which the funds are intended.

Last week, the Louisiana House Education Committee considered HB 833, or the “Safe Supportive Discipline Act of 2016,” which was introduced by Rep. Walter Leger.

Another similar bill, HB 372, was introduced by Rep. Joseph Bouie.

Both bills seek to define better and more transparent discipline policies and hold schools accountable to them, while also providing resources to help the districts incorporate research-based approaches like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and restorative justice.

HB 833 made it out of the committee last Wednesday by a 7-5 vote. Jennifer Coco, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has been working closely with lawmakers and school districts on the bill, said they are determining whether they go next to the House Appropriations committee or the House floor.

Coco has been working on amendments to address pushback, which she said was primarily coming from school board associations, superintendents, and principals.

The bill’s provisions for enforcement, including deadlines by which schools with high suspension rates must develop a plan, contributed to the pushback, Coco said.

After a plan is developed, under the bill the schools would then have a certain amount of time to lower their out-of-school suspension rates.

There’s also the issue of additional funding for the implementation of PBIS and other alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, which Coco acknowledges is a legitimate concern from schools and must be addressed.

And even when funded, it is important those alternatives be implemented with “fidelity,” Coco notes, in that there are cases when PBIS funding is used for little more than holding a “pizza party” as a reward, and not necessarily having the deeper impact.

Schools “need some oversight and accountability to do it right,” she said.

The bills also work to address better reporting and accountability when it comes to data. Discipline data is inherently problematic in that it is self-reported. If a school reports zero suspensions, that’s wonderful, Coco said, but there also must be a layer of oversight in place to ensure that zero percent suspension rate is accurate. And if it is indeed correct, it presents an opportunity for other schools to learn best practices.

Coco noted that undocumented suspensions – such as an administrator advising a parent to keep their child home for a day or two — can also contribute to false reporting.

HB 833 allows the state to audit schools under certain circumstances in which the data reported requires additional verification.

While some charter schools in New Orleans have reported rates as high as 66 percent in recent years (meaning they issued out-of-school suspensions to 66 percent of their student body at least once during the school year), Coco said based on their extensive analysis, the data shows “This isn’t just an urban issue, or a charter issue, it’s really the whole state.”

On top of that, Coco said data shows African-American students receive out-of-school suspensions at a rate 250 percent higher (2.5 times more likely) than other students. And the primary reason given is that (highly subjective) “willful disobedience,” she said.

Clearly, “We’re not being fair in who we suspend,” Coco said. And with rates 150 percent higher for kids with an Individualized Education Programs (IEP), “We are pushing out the kids who need the most help.”

HB 833 is designed to identify the schools with problematic rates, give them time to address the issue, and then offer assistance if the problem persists, Coco said, all part of an effort to work with schools.

It also establishes a “Statewide Commission on Safe Supportive Discipline” composed of school leaders and community representatives to continue research, and requires the state to publish discipline data annually.

The bottom line, said Coco, is that “The suspension rates in this state are indefensible.”

This article originally published in the May 9, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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