Monday night’s Jefferson County Board of Education meeting was about as action packed as they come. The board released its glowing evaluation of Superintendent Donna Hargens’ first year. (At one point during the meeting, board chairman Steve Imhoff even referred to Hargens as “supergirl.”)
Then came the evening’s most anticipated event — a vote to amend the student assignment plan … again. Changes will take effect in the 2013-2014 school year. With that buttoned up, supporters of the plan, opponents and reporters filed out of the meeting, leaving a smaller audience for an update on JCPS’s tepid steps toward possibly reforming discipline practices.
As LEO reported in February, JCPS currently has a “zero tolerance” discipline model. It’s a strict, prescriptive approach to punishment, with severity depending on the offense. For years now, discipline has fallen harder on black students (particularly black special education students) when compared to white, a trend consistent with other urban school systems around the country. From that article:
Last school year, of the roughly 8,300 total out-of-school suspensions issued in high schools, 62 percent, or 5,210, were given to roughly 2,500 black students (some received more than one). However, African-Americans make up just over one-third of the total high school population. That disparity is consistent in data LEO reviewed for the last four academic years.
In fact, since 2007, roughly 40 percent of the African-American male population on free and reduced lunch (an indicator of poverty) has been suspended at least once from high school. That group accumulates more suspensions than any other.
The pattern starts early. Last year, 78 suspensions were issued to JCPS kindergartners (yes, kindergartners), and 107 were issued the year before; 94 percent of those were given to students on free and reduced lunch, and 81 percent went to black students.
Of the 952 suspensions reported in elementary schools last year, mostly for fighting, black males received 58 percent of the suspensions, while they make up only 19 percent of the elementary population.
And this racial disparity crosses over socioeconomic lines. African-American males in the paid lunch (or higher income) category rack up a greater percentage of suspensions than the Caucasian males in that same group, as well.
It’s an issue concerning many in the community, including the NAACP and CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together). CLOUT has met with district officials on a number of occasions to push for what’s known as a “restorative practice” discipline model. The group even organized a trip to a Baltimore-area school district where this model has shown success. Hargens and others in her cabinet went along.
In essence, restorative practice focuses on working with kids to help them get to the root of their misbehavior, while holding them accountable for their harm. Students occasionally perform some sort of community service as a consequence of their action versus the more traditional suspension. The approach is touted as being more “proactive” than the “reactive” zero tolerance model.
School board members received a report on restorative practices that included information on the district’s current discipline system. It states that while some programs and individual schools incorporate elements of restorative practice, for the most part punishment is “exclusionary,” a term that should make board members squirm a bit because chances are the most unruly kids that are frequently sent to the office (a referral) or suspended likely don’t have stability at home to help them right their errant ways. They’ll likely keep getting in trouble and that doesn’t bode well for their future.
District data shows this is happening. During the 2011-2012 school year:
* JCPS handed out 110,860 discipline referrals.
* 23,197 students received at least one referral.
* 65 percent of students who received a referral received more than one referral.
* The highest number of referrals given to one student during 2011-2012 was 82.
* The most frequent referrals were for disruptive behavior (29 percent), failure to obey staff (17 percent), tardy to class (10 percent), bus disturbance (7 percent), skipping class (6 percent), and fighting (6 percent).
The report went on to say that while there’s significant empirical research showing that restorative practices help reduce offenses within the juvenile justice system, “the body of research and evaluation on the effectiveness of restorative practices in schools on student outcomes is relatively small.”
Still, several school districts from across the nation have anecdotally reported dramatic improvements. According to the report, in West Oakland, Calif., restorative practices helped decrease suspensions from 50 per 100 students to only six per 100.
Of course, at the meeting, district officials spoke before the board with a predictable message: We’re very proactive and not reactive when it comes to discipline, and we’re already doing a lot of restorative practice-type stuff. An argument many children’s welfare activists who’ve questioned JCPS’s discipline model contest.
Hargens has said she’s holding a restorative justice workshop in July. Principals can choose to attend.
So, there’s no indication that any sweeping discipline reform is on the horizon for JCPS.
Although, in her evaluation, school board members did cite discipline and student conduct as a recommended focus for Hargens in her next year, calling it an “area of need.”