Black male students are hit with one-third of all out-of-school suspensions at School District of Lancaster's five middle schools even though they make up just 17 percent of the student population, a disparity administrators are looking to tackle with a series of new interventions.

Data collected by the district and shared at a Jan. 9 school board work session shows black male students accounted for 33 percent of all sixth- through eighth-grade out-of-school suspensions over a 3½-year period ending in December.

Hispanic students, the district's majority at 61 percent, accounted for 54 percent of suspensions during that same period. White students, at 13 percent of enrollment, received just 11 percent of middle school suspensions.

Administrators are working on redefining vague infractions that trigger suspensions, such as "disruptive behavior," and training teachers to head off situations that can lead to severe consequences for students.

Part of the solution would be limiting the circumstances for which an out-of-school suspension of up to three days is considered.

Traditional alternatives such as detention and an improved in-school suspension option would be used more heavily. So would referrals to counselors or programs designed to ferret out the root causes of misbehavior and address them while students are in school.

But Superintendent Damaris Rau acknowledged the district also has to look beyond quick fixes to understand how discipline is meted out in some classrooms and schools.

"We need to make sure we are consistent across the entire district," she said, noting that staff attitudes are as critical to the solution as improved student behavior. "We are looking at workshops on implicit bias and trying to have those courageous conversations."

Looking at the numbers

This new focus comes even as the district has cut its overall suspension rate significantly.

Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, annual districtwide out-of-school suspensions fell 42 percent from 3,086 to 1,770. In the middle schools, the drop was 27 percent.

Suspensions are down nationally, too, but the 2017 Brown Center Report on American Education found suspensions of black students still occur at three to four time the average state rates for all students. Critics say zero-tolerance policies that result in repeated suspensions feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Jay Butterfield, director of schools for School District of Lancaster, said interventions will be designed to head off suspensions in any given school year and reduce the likelihood of future dropouts.

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"You suspend me two, three or four times, I don't want to go (to school)," he said.

Kyonna Bowman, assistant executive director for The Mix at Arbor Place, runs two programs serving black students and their families, including one targeting the over-representation of minority youth in the criminal justice system.

She has worked with local students who've been suspended, some of whom still report to the organization's after-school programs looking for structure. She wants schools to do a better job of acknowledging that poor behavior during the school might actually be a cry for help with poverty, mental health or substance abuse issues happening at home.

"They already have these obstacles they're trying to overcome, and (suspension) just adds to it," Bowman said. "I definitely think it negatively impacts them."

Of the 1,770 suspensions in School District of Lancaster schools last year, 175 went to middle school male students who identify as black. This year, the number of black middle school male students who are suspended is on pace to hit 246 — a 29 percent increase.

A request by LNP for a school-by-school breakdown of suspensions by ethnicity was denied, with officials citing a policy that limits sharing data when fewer than 40 students are in a group. Intermediary students from the Martin School, which includes grades six through eight, are included in the overall data.

Of that 2016-17 total, 81 percent of suspensions were doled out for either "disruptive behavior" or "other violations of standards of conduct."

Administrators are targeting those vaguely worded categories as they try to understand why black male students are more likely to be removed from school.

"We'd all agree that there are major offenses, and those get a little less gray area," said Chris Lopez, director of student services.

In most categories besides assaults, harassment and drug or weapons violations, though, officials want teachers to think outside the box when it comes to discipline.

"We want them to be less likely to say 'You're gone.' " Lopez told board members at the Jan. 9 work session. "The adults have to have a different response to our kids."

Finding solutions

Superintendent Rau pointed out that previous across-the-board reductions came in part through her administration's initiatives.

A restorative justice program, through which perpetrators of some offenses meet with victims to reach a resolution, is in place at 15 schools and training is expected to continue.

The program is one way Hand Middle School is confronting the issue, brought to a "shocking" head when Principal Mark Simms saw district suspension data last summer. His teachers, he said, had some sense of the disparity before but committed to changing it once they saw the figures.

"I think that data made it very real for all of us," Simms said. "They want to be on board with the initiatives and supports we can put in place … . It's about being more restorative than punitive."

In late 2016, the school board approved the hiring of 14 school family resource counselors, who help building principals handle discipline problems and connect students with social and emotional supports that may address underlying issues feeding bad behavior.

Moving forward, Rau wants to put more supports in place and lean on more community partners, such as mentors, to help troubled students see school as a place they should want to be.

"I'm not trying to eliminate suspensions," Rau said. "I'm trying to figure out what students need so they don't have to be suspended."

Key to her plans: standardizing reporting requirements and corresponding discipline districtwide.

"It's about being fair," she said. "Let's really name the behavior … so everybody is approaching it the same way."

To that end, district officials plan to invest in professional development for all teachers, including new hires, to make sure they have skills needed to de-escalate everyday situations such as argumentative students.

Simms said he was preparing to talk more with parents about the issue and remind them why suspensions exist.

"A suspension isn't to get rid of a kid," he said. "The essence of a suspension is to remove the student long enough to create a plan to help them and prevent the behavior on their return."

By using other discipline tactics to address less-egregious offenses, Simms hopes to help those students in real time while they're still benefiting from the support and structure a school day provides.

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