Suspensions, expulsions are used disproportionately to discipline N.H. students of color

  • New Concord High School principal Michael Reardon (center) meets Superitendent of School Jennifer Patterson (left) and School Board member Jim Richards at the open house for the new interim principal at the high school on Thursday night, December 5, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 7/4/2020 4:01:29 PM

For years, data has shown that Black students in New Hampshire schools are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white classmates for the same misbehaviors.

Concord school officials are now re-examining their own discipline policies amid conversations about racial equity in the school district.

Across the Granite State, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are used disproportionately to discipline students of color and students with disabilities, according to a 2019 report titled “Keeping Kids in School” by the Juvenile Justice Reform Project.

The report analyzed 2015 data from the U.S. Dept of Civil Rights and found that in New Hampshire, students of color made up 13.9% of the student population but made up 22.7% of all students receiving out-of-school suspensions.

Students of color were twice as likely to be suspended as white students, and students of color who were also disabled were 5.5 times as likely to be suspended as non-disabled white students.

“Why do we want to minimize school discipline? One of the reasons is the fact that it is doled out on an inequitable basis,” said New Hampshire Legal Assistance attorney Michelle Wangerin who contributed to the creation of the report.

That data showed that in the 2015-16 school year at Concord High School, Black students made up 8% of the student body, but made up 22% of out-of-school suspensions.

At Rundlett Middle School, the gap was even bigger: Black students made up 7% of the school population but 30% of out-of-school suspensions.

Wangerin said students with mental health issues are also more likely to be suspended, which can then lead to more mental health issues.

“That’s what you often see with the students that come back and commit the really egregious offenses within the school,” Wangerin said. “They have that history, there has been a pre-existing mental health issue that has been exacerbated by exclusion and isolation. If they had been embraced in a more restorative justice model, would their path have changed?”

Talking about racial inequities

Concord High Principal Mike Reardon, who came to the school 2019, said administrators haven’t previously discussed racial inequities in school discipline, but they plan to start now.

“I know that we didn’t talk last year, about whether or not more suspensions were handed out to kids of color than white students,” Reardon said. “But the events these past few weeks certainly raised our radar about those types of things.”

On June 22, a community task force on racial equity recommended the Concord School District reform its school discipline policy. The recommendations included a recommendation to move to restorative practices when disciplining students.

“I think all schools can benefit from looking at how discipline occurs,” said James McKim president of Manchester NAACP, who acted as an advisor to the task force. “We know Black and brown children are being disciplined differently because of the color of their skin. The data is there. It needs to be looked at through the lens of making a shift from what has traditionally been a punitive justice orientation to being a restorative justice orientation.”

Concord High School currently uses the Multi-Tiered System of Supports for Behavioral Health and Wellness, a prevention framework that involves screenings, mental health practices and behavioral interventions to support students with different needs and encourage relationship-building between students and educators in an attempt to catch problems early.

“We have kids coming from 20 different countries. Our ability to meet kids and give them the support that they need to succeed is really based upon having a lot of different programs in place and a lot of really talented people in place to identify their needs and push them to where they need to be to be successful,” said Reardon.

But when it comes to disciplining students for the misbehaviors that do happen, Concord School District responds with the traditional practices most New Hampshire schools use – parent involvement, detentions, in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and in severe instances, police involvement.

In-school suspensions are when students are removed from class as punishment for misbehavior but remain under the supervision of school employees. Detention takes place in school after hours, with no loss of instructional time. Out-of-school suspensions are when students are temporarily banned from school property.

“We are not a pro-suspension administrative team. We firmly believe that kids need to be in the class, and education provides opportunity,” said Concord High School’s assistant principal, Tim Herbert. “With that being said, I am an assistant principal, I do hand out suspensions right now because it’s the policies and practices that I am working with.”

In the 2018-19 school year, Concord High School gave out-of-school suspensions to 166 students, or 10% of the student body, according to data from the NH Department of Education.

Rundlett Middle School suspended 127 students that same year, which is 13% of the student body.

Christa McAuliffe School was the Concord elementary school with the highest number of suspensions: 30 students, or 8% of its student body.

Now, Concord school administrators are wondering if the system involving these “exclusionary” discipline methods – suspensions and expulsions – should change.

“We believe that education provides opportunity for students,” Herbert said. “And when you start denying access to that very thing that gives them that opportunity, it’s counterintuitive to the reason we got into education in the first place.”

Eyeing reform

On June 6, Concord High School students organized a Black Lives Matter rally and march to protest police brutality that attracted a crowd of well over 1,000 people to Concord.

The event led the Concord School Board and school district administrators to assemble a conversation group of community members and activists to talk about addressing racial bias and promoting social justice in Concord schools. Activists from this group became the task force that submitted the list of recommendations to the district.

One of the ways the task force recommended Concord School District reform its discipline policy is by collecting detailed data about the staff member involved, the race of the child being disciplined, the incident that invoked the discipline and what discipline was used.

Currently, at Concord High School, teachers dealing with a misbehavior issue fill out a referral form that contains their own name, the name of the administrator who addresses the behavior issue, the nature of the infraction and the discipline handed out. The race of the student being disciplined is not a question that is asked on the referral form, but the form connects with the student’s demographic information in the computer system, which includes race so it is possible for the data to be analyzed.

“We are going to look at that and make sure (about) all those issues around unconscious biases. I’d like to think we haven’t fallen under the spell of that dangerous way of thinking, but we are going to look at this objectively and see where we are and take whatever steps we need to rectify imbalances,” Reardon said.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Project report said New Hampshire schools rely heavily on out-of-school suspensions to punish students, in part because state law doesn’t put many restrictions on the way local school districts can choose to apply that punishment.

The state law in question, RSA 193:13, says New Hampshire superintendents can suspend students for “gross misconduct or for neglect or refusal to conform to the reasonable rules of the school,” a line that permits suspensions for both serious violations like assault and also less serious violations like swearing or being absent without an excuse.

In July, Concord High School administrators will attend a retreat where they will discuss their discipline policy and examine past discipline data, including the types of suspensions and types of infractions, for evidence of unconscious bias.

Reardon said they also want to host listening groups this summer of approximately 15 students from different backgrounds, to get a better idea of what’s going on in students’ lives that they may be missing.

“We see kids talking, we see kids interact. But when we see these things, we see maybe 10% or 15% of what is going on in kids’ lives,” Reardon said. “There is a lot going on that no adult sees.”

The administrators will also be discussing the possibility of implementing restorative justice as a method of handling school discipline at Concord High School. Restorative justice is a method of dealing with student misbehavior through mediation with the student to come to a solution and fix the problem rather than hand out a punishment.

Herbert has studied the restorative justice method for the past six years, and says he hopes to implement some restorative practices at the high school as early as this fall.

“Ultimately, what we want to accomplish at Concord High School is discipline policies and practices that are proactive, we are addressing the student needs so they can access their education, so they have opportunities that should be afforded to them,” Herbert said. “It is going to take time to do this right, and every minute spent on it is going to be worth it once it is up and running.”

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