Posted on August 4, 2004

Report: Blacks Suspended At High Rate

Dana Boone,, Aug. 3

Black students are suspended at much higher rates than students in other ethnic groups in Des Moines schools — in many cases far exceeding state recommendations, according to a report the board will discuss tonight.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Temeka Rushing , whose daughter Tatyana , 5, will attend kindergarten at Moulton Extended Learning Center this year.

Overall, the total number of suspensions last school year decreased from 11,604 to 10,825, or 6.7 percent. However, black students had disproportionately high suspension rates, the report found. In elementary schools, blacks, who made up 15.3 percent of enrollment, received 36.8 percent of suspensions. In middle schools, they received 27.4 percent of suspensions, although they made up 17.3 percent of enrollment.

A school district’s minority suspension rates should not be more than 10 percentage points over its minority student enrollment, according to state recommendations, said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon . Education department officials said districts face no sanctions for failing to meet guidelines.

Board members will discuss the report at today’s board meeting, which begins at 7 p.m., an hour later than normal, in the board room at 1800 Grand Ave.

School officials for the past three years have struggled to find solutions to the disparities in suspension rates for black students. Witherspoon said he doesn’t know why black students are suspended disproportionately.

“I don’t know that there’s any special reason except these are students who exhibit the behaviors that lead to suspension,” Witherspoon said.

Some blacks disagreed.

“I don’t see how they can dismiss race as a factor,” said Jonathan Narcisse , president of the State of Black Iowa Initiative, which studies education and other social issues.

“Some teachers are racist,” said Sierra Hill , 13, who will be a seventh-grader this fall at Callanan Middle School.

Linda C. Stanley , who has several grandchildren in Des Moines schools, said many educators don’t understand enough about their students’ backgrounds.

“Maybe they’re hungry, maybe Mom and Dad can’t provide for them,” she said. “You can’t expect them to act perfectly at school then go back home to troubled environments.”

Rushing, the Moulton parent, was among those who said some black students get into trouble so they can miss school.

Nationally, many school districts have struggled with disproportionately high suspension rates for black students, including school systems in Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio; and Greensboro, N.C.

The Des Moines district three years ago began focusing on reducing suspensions in hopes of improving student achievement, while also working to maintain safety, officials said.

A year ago, the African American Leadership Coalition demanded an investigation after The Des Moines Register reported that one in three students arrested in Des Moines high schools in the 2002-03 school year was black.

Witherspoon said coalition members this year have served on a committee with school officials, which resulted in improved tracking of suspensions. The panel also led to police and mediators in the schools working with troubled students.

This fall, officials will also track students who have two or more suspensions and develop individualized plans to reduce the suspensions, Witherspoon said.

The coalition had also requested that questionnaires about racial bias be given to school employees, but a year later no questionnaires had been administered, he said. Coalition members could not be reached for comment.

Suspensions and low test scores appear to be related, the suspension report found. For example, students who were suspended more than 10 days performed one to two grade levels below their peers in reading, math and science on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Students received the most suspensions for similar reasons across grade levels:

— Fighting and insubordination were the top reasons for elementary suspensions.

— Refusal to conform and disorderly conduct were the top reasons in middle schools.

— Truancy and refusal to conform were the top reasons in high schools.