School Climate & Safety

Feds: ‘Unprecedented’ Deal in Oakland on Black Student Suspensions

By Nirvi Shah — September 28, 2012 6 min read
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The first of some 20 federal investigations into racial disparity in school district discipline practices closed today, yielding a long-term, prescriptive plan for change in the Oakland public schools, a district in which black students made up 32 percent of enrollments last school year but accounted for 63 percent of all suspensions.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights called the plan for Oakland “unprecedented” and a sign of things to come, describing the problems highlighted in Oakland as representative of problems across the country. Oakland will take a number of steps to address the issue, including working to find ways to address misbehavior that doesn’t require students to leave school. And it will be monitored by the civil rights office through at least the 2016-17 school year.

“This is a landmark resolution with the intent is to suss out and eradicate the causes of discrimination where it may exist,” said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, in a phone call with reporters this afternoon. “It represents a voluntary commitment from the leadership in Oakland to ensure that discipline policies are implemented in a way that is fair and effective and that they work to change the culture in schools and classrooms.”

In a letter accompanying the agreement, the OCR found that over time in Oakland, the risk of black students being suspended out of school has risen. In the 1998-99 school year, black students composed 53 percent of students in the district and 75 percent of students suspended out of school. During the 2009-10 year—the year captured by the civil rights data collection, black students made up 33 percent of student enrollment and nearly 64 percent of students suspended out of school—and 51 percent of students expelled. Last school year, the statistics were similar.

During many of those years, the district had been mired in financial and leadership woes, and for a time was under state control.

Oakland had been aware of its problems, said Superintendent Tony Smith, who took the helm in 2009. The 37,000-student district went so far as to enlist an external group to act as a district watchdog on this issue. The plan worked out with the OCR, adopted unanimously by the Oakland school board Thursday night, will involve in-depth training across the district; additional use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS; restorative justice practices; and “manhood development” classes, which are designed to help students navigate their way through school. Preliminary data from the district show that students who participate in these manhood classes improve their attendance and are suspended less often than their peers.

Current school board policies don’t require schools to try these strategies before disciplining a student, and the district doesn’t define one key reason for which students can be suspended: the “defiance and disruption” category. The OCR said this is the primary reason black students are disciplined. District staff told the civil rights office that different employees define this category in different ways and, the report says, “allows for the possibility of cultural misinterpretation of behavior and bias to play a role in the discipline decision-making process.” The misunderstanding, they said, could lead to a situation escalating and a student being disciplined.

“To be able to circle [defiance and disruption] and push a child out of a learning environment is unacceptable,” Smith said.

Going forward, Oakland teachers will have to describe student’s behavior, in addition to categorizing the student’s behavior as defiant. The review concludes the same week that Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed several bills that aim to change schools’ use of out-of-school suspension, although he vetoed a bill that would have limited schools’ ability to suspend students on these undefined grounds. His decision came a few weeks after a report in California found that about two-thirds of school officials were concerned about their school discipline policies having a differential impact on students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Eventually, the schools targeted in the plan will have to host annual forums during the school day at which students will be able to discuss discipline and share their thoughts on improving Oakland’s discipline policies. The district must share the details of each of those forums with the OCR. Teachers at these schools must also go through special training that will provide detailed explanations of the discipline code, and when it is and isn’t appropriate to involve a school police officer. The training applies for any teacher who arrives partway through the school year, too. And parents will have to be informed of students’ due-process rights when disciplinary action is proposed by the school district.

“We have been trying really hard to move away from a zero-tolerance strategy” for discipline, Smith said. “When children aren’t in school, they aren’t getting the benefit of the quality instruction. There have been policies that have pushed out boys of color. The waste of so much human potential is unacceptable, not only in Oakland but across the country.”

He said he believes the measures the district will take, which build on steps taken over the last few years, will shift the culture in the district—and has the potential to improve a troubled city with a history of poverty and violence. “We think as a public school system we can contribute to a healthier city by addressing this problem,” Smith said.

The OCR’s 20 investigations, which are spread across 14 states, are part of an Obama administration pledge to work on reducing the overrepresentation of some racial and ethnic groups in school discipline cases. This fiscal year, her office has received 567 complaints regarding school discipline, Ali said.

“Disparities in disciplinary procedures are inherently wrong and all too common,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “I commend Oakland for being the first district to directly confront this challenge. It can be a model for school districts everywhere who are struggling with similar issues.”

Among other things, the agreement requires Oakland to:

  • Ensure to the maximum extent possible that misbehavior is addressed in a manner that does not require removal from school;
  • Collaborate with experts on research-based strategies to develop positive school climates by preventing discrimination in the implementation of school discipline;
  • Identify at-risk students and provide them with support services in order to decrease behavioral difficulties, and continue to provide academic services for students who are removed from school for disciplinary reasons;
  • Review and revise disciplinary policies;
  • Train staff and administrators on discipline policies, and develop and implement programs for students, parents, and guardians that will explain the district’s discipline policies and behavioral expectations and that will inform parents and guardians of their right to raise concerns and file complaints concerning discipline;
  • Conduct an annual survey of students, staff, community members, and parents regarding discipline; and,
  • Improve its discipline data-collection system to evaluate discipline policies and practices, with the goal of replicating “best practices” throughout the district.

“I wanted to be really clear that in this we are not looking to equalize discipline rates,” Ali concluded. “This is about how to keep kids in class and ensure that they are learning. The data flipped would not equal a solution to the problem.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.