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Federal data shows disparities in school discipline in N.H.


Monitor staff
Thursday, August 30, 2018

Students of color and students with disabilities, in New Hampshire as well as nationwide, are more likely to be disciplined – and disciplined more harshly – than their peers.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights from the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available, shows those patterns consistently pop up in New Hampshire’s most diverse high schools and in the nearly all-white capital-area schools as well.

At Concord High, for example, African American students made up just 8 percent of the total student population but represented 14 percent of in-school suspensions, 22 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of all school-related arrests.

Numbers were similarly off balance at Rundlett Middle School. There, black students made up 7 percent of the total student population but 50 percent of in-school suspensions, 30 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 29  percent of school-related arrests.

Administrators in Concord pointed out that the overall numbers of incidents in certain categories were quite low and that just a handful of students could skew the data.

At Rundlett Middle School, for example, black students made up 50 percent of in-school suspensions yet only four in-school suspensions were recorded that year in total.

Concord High Principal Tom Sica noted the raw numbers for his school were fairly low. The school reported 48 in-school suspensions, 27 out-of-school suspensions and 17 school-related arrests.

By comparison, Nashua High School North, which has virtually the same number of students – 1,751 – reported 277 in-school suspensions and 290 out-of-school suspensions. Meanwhile, Central High School in Manchester reported 353 out-of-school suspensions, more than 10 times the number in Concord.

Still, Sica said any disparities that fell along racial, special-education or socio-economic lines, whether academic or disciplinary, were “always part of our reflection.”

Compare and contrast

Outside of Concord, the numbers of minority students are so low, even a few suspensions can create large statistical disparities.

At Pembroke Academy, the nine Hispanic students at the school accounted for 1 percent of the total student population but represented 7 percent of the school’s 109 in-school suspensions and 8 percent of the 132 out-of-school suspensions. And while 12 percent of the student body was identified as requiring a special education plan under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special education students accounted for 38 percent of in-school suspensions and 30 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

“I don’t think there are any trends or biases inherent in there,” Pembroke Academy Headmaster Paul Famulari said.

Some schools with extremely small numbers of racial and ethnic minorities showed just slight or no disparities in discipline based on race – like Merrimack Valley, Bow and Pittsfield high schools.

At John Stark Regional High School, for example, students identified as two or more races accounted for just 2 percent of the student body but 7 percent of in-school suspensions and 9 percent of out-of-school suspensions. But the most notable disparities were for special education students. They represented 17 percent of the student body, but 64 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 85 percent of referrals to law enforcement.

John Stark Principal Chris Corkery said the percentages had alarmed him, but repeat offenders had skewed the data.

“It does worry me that the statistics indicate that. And that’s why I looked into it,” Corkery said. “(But) two or three students can really sway the data.”

Suspension rates for minority groups can also vary widely by district.

For example, at Concord High 2.2 percent of the students are Hispanic but did not account for any of the school’s suspensions.

By contrast, Nashua’s two high schools have Hispanic populations of about 19 percent, but those students make up about one-third of suspensions.

And even the type of discipline meted out can vary by school.

At Manchester Central, with 1,623 students, only eight students were given in-school suspensions, but the school reported 353 out-of-school suspensions.

Patterns of discipline

Douglas Gagnon, a researcher, authored several studies on school discipline for the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. He said any one data point can be debated, but the overall patterns – across schools, districts and states – were overwhelmingly clear.

“It is true that anytime you have any numbers that low that literally a single incident could lead to disproportionalities. So there is some truth that. But when you aggregate everything up, things play out in a rather predictable way,” he said.

But while administrators generally pushed back on the data, all also noted that their schools were making efforts to understand why students were misbehaving, and offering appropriate supports, instead of simply meting out punishments and walking away.

Programs many cited were underway or in the works – such as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support – were often just the sort of reforms advocates say could help the problem of unequal discipline.

Corkery said John Stark had been building its restorative justice program up for several years and had seen its number of suspensions go down dramatically.

“Just throwing the hammer at people is never going to work,” he said.

Advocates like New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which often represent students in disciplinary cases, have also long called for school districts to adopt clearer policies around school discipline.

Currently, New Hampshire law allows for three levels of out-of-school exclusion: suspensions lasting 10 days or less, long-term suspensions and expulsions. And while the due process for each type of discipline is different – a short-term suspension, for example, isn’t open to appeal to the state board of education – the legal standard isn’t.

To be suspended – for any length of time – or expelled, a student, per state law, must simply have displayed “gross misconduct or neglect or refusal to conform to the reasonable rules of the school.”

Advocates don’t think that clearer policies will be a panacea, and they concede that disparities exist in many districts where policies are already clear. But they argue clearer expectations about what behavior merits what punishment will mitigate the discretion, that, married with unconscious bias, manifests itself in harsher punishments for marginalized students.

Legislative efforts

Lawmakers crafted House Bill 1637 in response, requiring school districts to establish policies outlining criteria for different levels of discipline.

The bill received bipartisan support, passing the House and the Senate, but fell apart at the end of the session when the two chambers failed to reconcile versions of the bill.

House Education chairman Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said there was a general consensus about the measure, but legislators ran out of time to iron out the details.

“Unfortunately we had a lot of bills suck the air out of the room this year,” he said.

But legislative progress was made, he said. Lawmakers had earlier identified that the quality of data about school discipline wasn’t very good, and new reporting requirements were written into a package of bills codifying New Hampshire’s new federal accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind.

Schools will be annually required to report suspension rates, the length of those suspensions, and a breakdown by race, gender, special education status, and free and reduced lunch eligibility. Gov. Chris Sununu is expected to sign the bills.

Ladd said improved reporting and data could help educators understand the problem and find a better way forward.

“We can identify best practices,” he said. “What is it that schools are doing to make things work?”

And that’s precisely what Concord superintendent Terri Forsten said she was interested in doing.

“If there’s a neighboring district that is doing things in a fashion that is different, that could be presumed just by looking at the numbers as better, we would certainly reach out to them to say ‘hey’,” she said.

Editor’s note: Search for your school’s discipline data online at ocrdata.ed.gov/DistrictSchoolSearch.