Suspensions examined

Students head to class at Harvie Elementary School, one of nine Henrico schools identified as having an above-average number of ‘habitual’ student offenders’ who earn three or more suspensions a year.

The number of students who received out-of-school suspensions in Henrico public schools has dropped significantly across all races during the past four years, but black students still receive a disproportionate number of suspensions, according to data compiled by the school system.

Black students represent 37 percent of the system’s population but accounted for 76 percent of all out-of-school suspensions last year, the data showed. School officials pointed to 1,068 “habitual offenders” – 875 of whom are black – as the most problematic students in the system, because each one received at least three such suspensions last year, collectively accounting for more than half the suspensions issued system-wide.

The school system has come under fire in recent months from some community members and elected officials, who questioned the disproportionate number of suspensions among black students first brought to light this summer in a UCLA report that examined schools nationwide.

The new data – at times an overwhelming assortment of numbers and percentages that broke down suspensions by race, income level, disabilities and a a multitude of ways – was met with mixed reaction from two black elected officials after a two-hour presentation to the Henrico School Board Nov. 8.

“I don’t know if I feel better or confused,” said Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson, who last month penned a letter with Henrico state Senator Donald McEachin to Henrico Superintendent Pat Russo to inquire about the disproportionate suspension rates. “If the issue is in the eyes of the school system that African American kids get into more trouble than non-African American kids, then say that. That’s pretty much what I’m getting from the data. That’s unfortunate, but I’m not seeing any specifics saying how we’re going to deal with it.”

The school system’s data showed that nine schools in the county’s northern and eastern regions – Harvie, Fair Oaks and Highland Springs elementaries; Elko, Fairfield and Wilder middles; and Hermitage, Highland Springs and Varina highs – were responsible for about a quarter of all out-of-school suspensions in the county last year. Of
those, Highland Springs High School had the most students who received three or more such suspensions (121), while Wilder (100) was next.

‘We really need a surge’
Fairfield District School Board member Lamont Bagby, a former teacher and administrator at Fairfield Middle and Henrico High, also was disappointed that officials did not present a specific action plan to address those trouble spots.

“We’ve been able to key in on the population that is repeatedly being suspended,” Bagby told the Citizen. “We really need a surge [of support] in the area. Since we have identified those young people, it would be in our best interest to see how we can support them.”

Assistant Superintendent for Exceptional Education and Research & Planning Bondy Shay Gibson and Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education and Organizational Development Chris Corallo told Bagby that the school system’s strategic plan already contains goals and points of action to address the issue, and seven principals who spoke at the board’s meeting last week outlined a variety of measures they currently employ to reduce suspensions.

But, like Bagby, Nelson believes more must be done.

“I guess it’s good to know that 50 percent of the suspensions come from 2.21 percent of the kids,” Nelson said, “but on the other hand, you’ve still got to ask yourself the question: What are we doing for that specific population? What are we going to do for those kids that we know have some challenges? What do we do? How do we engage the community, engage the young people? The question still is not answered.”

During last week’s meeting Russo said that he was proud of the efforts the school system has made.

“We’ve got a ways to go, and we’re going to be vigilant” in continuing to place resources where they are most needed, he said.

Following the UCLA report, there had been frustration among some community members who believed black students in Henrico were being punished more severely than students of other races for the same offenses. But the school system’s data seemed to contradict that claim.

About 53 percent of black students who were suspended received one- or two-day suspensions for their first offenses of the year, compared with about 57 percent of whites and 59 percent of other races. The top four offenses for which students earned their first suspensions last year also were the same among all three groups, with “altercation or confrontation with no injury” and “defiance” the top two across the board.

Varina District School Board member John Montgomery expressed satisfaction with those results.

“I’m extremely pleased that the anecdote is supported 100 percent by the data,” he said. “We’ve got great work to do, but that’s a great starting place.”

The data drew a correlation between the economic status of students and their rates of suspension, finding that nearly a quarter of all economically disadvantaged black students received out-of-school suspensions at least once in 2011-12, while 15 percent of economically disadvantaged white students did. It also found that black students with disabilities were much more likely to be suspended at least once when compared with other students. More than 20 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were given to black students with disabilities, while only 6.3 percent involved white students with disabilities, and less than one percent involved disabled students of other ethnicities.

Overall, the number of students receiving out-of-school suspensions dropped from 5,873 in the 2008-09 school year to 4,680 last year, and the total number of suspensions fell from 12,180 to 9,165 during that same period.

Efforts underway
Seven Henrico principals – all from schools with high out-of-school suspension totals – told the board about a variety of efforts they’ve implemented to help reduce suspensions and improve student behavior. Among them:

• the BOSS (Before Out of School Suspension) program at Elko Middle School, which requires participating students to wear uniforms, complete individualized lesson specific to the offenses they committed and engage in discussions with a teacher and other BOSS participants about those offenses and the lessons they’ve learned;

• mentoring programs at Brookland Middle School that pair students who need extra guidance with teachers or community or faith-based volunteers for twice-weekly sessions;

• a monthly breakfast at Harvie Elementary School – which serves a higher than average transient population – during which students who are new to the school build rapport with each other and with staff members;

• the division of administrative aide funding at several high schools, so that instead of four full-time aides, those schools have 17 to 19 part-time aides to assist with day-to-day issues that otherwise would be more challenging.

Because many of the students at the elementary school level who have behavioral issues and receive suspensions are performing below their grade levels academically, Corallo suggested that the school system do more to reach them early.

“We need to put more dollars in intervention in our pre-K through two,” he said. “We don’t want to send kids to third grade with any holes in their foundational skills.”

Ten Henrico schools are piloting new “family advocate” positions at their schools through Title I funding. The family advocates at each school work with families to engage them in their students’ lives and to ensure that communication from the schools reaches families.

Nelson made no apologies for helping to bring the issue to the attention of the board and community.

“My job was to ask questions, which is what I did,” he said. “I’m not trying to knock anything that the school system is trying to do. I just want to make sure all our kids are being treated fairly.”

Nelson is frustrated that he and McEachin have not received a formal written reply from Russo – “pretty much in essence we’ve gotten the blow-off,” he said – but said that County Manager Virgil Hazelett was working to coordinate a meeting between supervisors, Russo and school officials.

Bagby believes the attention the matter has received is already having an impact.

“This conversation puts staff on notice that this is of concern – not only to elected officials and Central Office staff, but to the community as a whole,” he said. “As I visit schools lately, principals and teachers have mentioned that this entire conversation has made them think twice about how they discipline.”
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