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Suspensions Disproportionately Affect Minorities

Data Shows Need for Restorative Practices

Bridgette Adu-Wadier

Out-of-school suspensions in ACPS rose in the 2017-2018 school year (SY)– 200 more than in SY 2016-2017. ACPS suspension data from 2017-2018 shows that students of color are disproportionately suspended out of school.

“ACPS needs to take this problem seriously, we want ACPS to invest in reducing the suspension rate among students of color,” said Ingris Moran of Tenants and Workers United (TWU), a community organization advocating for low-income and immigrant families.

This data reflects a common national trend. The populations of Black, Hispanic and students with disabilities are suspended at a higher rate than White students.

Black students made up 28 percent of ACPS enrollment last year, but were 44 percent of the total out-of-school suspensions. Latinx students made up 37 percent of ACPS enrollment but made up 39 percent of suspensions. According to ACPS data, Black students were five times likelier to be suspended than White students and Latinx students were three times more  likely to be suspended than White students.

“People of color are more likely to be seen as doing something wrong, even when they are not doing anything [wrong],” said Divine Tsasa Nzita, TWU youth member and T.C. Student Government Association president. “If I were yelling at a teacher and my White counterpart was yelling at a teacher, we might not get the same punishment.” 

Black students comprised only 27 percent of the ACPS enrollment for the 2017-2018 school year, but made up 44 percent of suspensions.

And though suspensions decreased last year at T.C., suspensions at the middle schools accounted for 51 percent of all suspensions in 2017-2018, according to ACPS data. Francis Hammond had 191 total suspensions last year — nearly a quarter of all suspensions in ACPS– and George Washington had 157, which was 20 percent of total suspensions.

“At that young age, kicking [middle school students] out of school should not be the first response,” said Nzita. 

Middle school students accounted for over half of total out-of-school suspensions. The number of suspensions increased in grades 6-9.

Over one third (34 percent) of suspensions in ACPS were for subjective, vague reasons, such as “disrespect,” “disruption” and “other violations.”

The spike in suspensions and the number of minorities affected has prompted TWU to intensify its three year fight for restorative justice. 

Black and Latinx students make up 85% of suspensions based on subjective offenses, such as “talking back” or “disrespect”. ACPS data pursuant to the Advancement Project’s July 2018 records request.

Restorative justice (RJ) is a style of school discipline that aims to support positive community relationships between students, teachers and staff, especially when harm is done. There are two approaches: (1) community circles comprising student and teacher-led conversations to build trust in school environments, and (2) restorative circles after a fight occurs to ensure students are heard and able to voice their conflicts.

“The purpose of this [RJ] is to build community….With a suspension, the student will probably still be angry and resentful. But with restorative circles, another fight will not happen again,” said Moran.

Restorative practices were first implemented in the 2013-2014 school year at Minnie Howard and the International Academy. Five years later, RJ has expanded to the rest of T.C., but it is still not completely part of school instruction.

“If it is not a part of the structure, it is not mandatory. There are still some students who have never heard of it [restorative practices],” said Moran. 

At the School Board meeting on April 25, students voiced their desire to have RJ practices in their classrooms on a regular basis.

“I still have not had any community building circles this school year,” said David Frimpong, T.C. junior and TWU youth member, at the meeting.

“I believe there should be at least two [community circles] a month,” said Nzita. “I believe that community circles work, but it is a new program so people have to warm up to it.”

Youth member of TWU silently protests disparities in school suspensions.

According to data received from a Freedom of Information Act request that TWU sent out, T.C. is also reported that in the first semester of SY 2018-2019, the number of referrals at the T.C. King Street Campus totaled 750, an increase from last school year’s 682 referrals. SY 2018-2019 discipline data also showed that T.C. had 112 suspensions during the first semester, an increase from the 97 suspensions T.C. had in SY 2017-2018.

“T.C. needs to acknowledge that there is an issue,” said Nzita.

This year, there were a total of 150 suspensions at the middle school level. Last year, there were 134.

Disorderly conduct is an increasingly common reason for suspensions. A third of suspensions were for “disorderly conduct,” compared to 24 percent last year, according to ACPS data. Nzita said the reason needs to be more specific, as disorderly conduct is “subjective…the meaning changes from person to person.”

“We need to stop being a part of the school-to-prison pipeline and find [an] alternative to suspensions,” said Krisly Caballero, a seventh grader at George Washington Middle School.

At the May 23 School Board work session, School Board member Heather Thornton discussed her proposal for an additional $154,600 to the ACPS operating budget to add a full-time middle school coordinator for restorative practices. 

“When I hear data like that, my first inclination is to think, what more can we do?” said Thornton. “We are doing a lot….We have over 700 administrators trained, students being trained to implement these restorative practices, we are hiring liaisons….I am still wondering about the implementation of that….So when I think about adding this restorative practices coordinator, it is really me just trying to put this into the discussion that we want to best support you all.”

Tenants and Workers United is pushing for a full-time employee to oversee progress on restorative practices.

“We are going to need more staff,” said Moran. “We want more funding and an employee [to implement RJ].”

School Board member Meagan Alderton argued that the division needs to focus on school expectations as a foundation instead of focusing on RJ as a solution.

“We want to jump on these bandwagons for a ‘fix.’ But we do not have the foundation for it…Restorative practices should be a layer on top of some very basic things for our school …We need to start talking about what our expectations are and whether or not we are teaching those expectations…If we do not do that, restorative practice is not going to stop the problem of suspensions,” said Alderton.