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Conference Addresses Racial Gaps In School Discipline

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report which said, while Black students made up 24 percent of those enrolled, they made up 38 percent of the nation’s public school students referred to police for misbehavior.

According to the CPI report, Virginia led the nation with a referral rate of 15.8 students per 1,000, compared to the national average of 6 students per 1,000.

Analysis of the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) discipline, crime and violence (DCV) data indicates a strong, declining trend in total number of short-term suspensions, long-term suspensions, and expulsions. Although rates of school discipline among all Virginia students are decreasing, disproportionality in short-term suspensions among minority students remains stable and is increasing among students with disabilities.

Black students make up only about 24 percent of the student population, but accounted for 53 percent of short-term suspensions in 2013-2014. Students with disabilities make up about 12 percent of the student population, yet accounted for 26 percent of short term suspensions during that same period.

On July 24-25, Virginia school leaders from across Virginia attended the “Classroom Not Courtrooms: School Discipline and the Achievements Gap Institute” Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

The event was designed to allow local public school superintendents, principals and other administrators to receive and exchange ideas and talk about best practices and alternatives to referring minority children to law enforcement agencies for misbehaving.

Suspension is defined as the temporary denial of a student’s attendance at school. The duration of a short-term suspension is ten days or less. A long-term suspension is defined as more than ten days but less than 365 calendar days. Expulsion is defined as the permanent denial of a student’s attendance at school. A student who is expelled by a school board may be ineligible for readmission for 365 calendar days after the date of the expulsion.

The practices disrupts a child’s time in the classrooms, retards their access to classroom work and could steer them out of the school system and into the criminal justice system.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently announced his “Classrooms not Courtrooms Initiative.” It is “a multi-agency, administration-wide push to reduce student referrals to law enforcement, reduce suspensions and expulsions, address the disparate impact these practices have on African-Americans and students with disabilities, and address the emphasis on subjective offenses like disorderly conduct.”

Last month, McAuliffe signed legislation directing the Board of Education to find alternatives to school suspensions.

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This is a high priority for the Governor, and he said he is encouraging superintendents, school board members, and school leaders to also make reducing these numbers and addressing these issues a high priority.

McAuliffe spoke at the conference. He encouraged school leaders to examine discipline.

“You refer someone to law enforcement at a very young age, you could really affect that individual’s career,” he said. “Far too many of our students are spending time outside the classroom unfortunately because of disciplinary action.”

McAuliffe said the numbers are “entirely too high,” which he called “unacceptable and will not be tolerated here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. There is no room in our Commonwealth for excessive or discriminatory discipline for our students.”

John Eisenberg is the VODE’s assistant superintendent for special education and student services. He said the department has been working to expand awareness, causes and define solutions to the problem, especially racial disparities, and provide more resources and policy to combat it.

He said that a three-tiered approach is being encouraged to attack problems related to a child’s mental health, the effects of poverty and even nutrition.

Eisenberg said during the “Classroom not Courtroom” conference, there was a focus on the role of community partnering, home and the school to confront the issue and inject more resources from the state and individual divisions

Parents, he said, especially those who had negative experiences while in school themselves, should not be intimidated by the educational bureaucracy.

Schools should be a hub and a welcoming warehouse of resources for parents to help them cope with the personal and emotional issues of their children, including parenting classes, Eisenberg said.

Further teachers should be trained to apply “cultural competence” to deal with the cultural biases they may have toward children of another race and culture

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The Virginia Department of Education is working with other state agencies to implement a variety of working strategies, including but not limited to:
• Promoting constructive partnerships between schools and law enforcement, through the development and implementation of a new standardized joint training program for School Resource Officers and school administrators;
• Expanding and improving school divisions’ use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS);
• Finding effective alternatives to criminal justice interventions; and
• Producing a training program for administrators

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter

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