One in four African American middle school students was suspended or expelled from Portland Public Schools last year. One in 14 white middle schoolers was suspended or expelled during the same period, records show.
Now district leaders are examining to what extent race influences discipline decisions.
Multiple factors, including parent involvement and skills, poverty, student friendships and personality, can contribute to misbehavior, district officials say. Nevertheless, they concede, the disparity among the races is striking.
“This is a problem that Portland Public is not going to be able to solve alone,” said Willie Poinsette, the district’s chief of student, family and school support.
Last year, with 44,803 students, the district counted a total of 2,874 suspensions and 153 expulsions; some students were removed more than once. African Americans received 1,241; white students received 1,144. However, white students accounted for 57 percent of the district’s population while African Americans made up 16 percent.
Rates of discipline are disproportionate no matter whether a student attends a low-income Portland school or a wealthy one. For example, at Kellogg Middle School, where 67 percent of kids qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, white students made up 50 percent of the population and received 11.2 percent of the suspensions and expulsions. African American students made up 10 percent of the population and 33 percent of the suspensions and expulsions. At Gray Middle School, which has 25 percent of students getting subsidized lunch, white students make up 77 percent of the student body and received 3 percent of suspensions and expulsions. Six percent of students are African American; they received 10 percent of suspensions and expulsions.
Researchers nationwide have studied the overrepresentation of African Americans in discipline referrals, suspensions and expulsions. And Portland officials have known of the disparity locally for decades. Though they praise teachers for doing their best in often challenging environments, administrators will explore to what degree the biases of teachersboth African Americans and whitesmight be an issue.
No one argues that overtly bad behavior warrants a student’s swift removal from school, with teachers and administrators continuing to take seriously fighting, weapons and vandalism. And certainly middle school is the time when students are most likely to act out.
But administrators and others are examining more subjective forms of misbehavior such as insubordination and disruptive conduct, and trying to determine whether African American students are disciplined unfairly based on actions such as talking loudly or making eye contact meant as direct and respectful but interpreted as menacing.
“Kids need to own their part of it,” Poinsette said. “But sometimes it’s in the language that we use or the way we look at people. There are some cultural nuances there. . . Teachers aren’t even aware sometimes of the different tones they use with kids.”
The parent factor
Poinsette cites a University of California at Berkeley study that shows white, middle-class students may face lighter penalties because their parents are more comfortable challenging districts legally. Locally, she says, some Portland educators aren’t accustomed to having their discipline questioned by minority parents.
“Too frequently, educators respond differently to parents that they assume have power or know how to navigate the system,” Poinsette said. “Unfortunately, parents of poor and minority students often are unable to or don’t know how to advocate for their children in an educational setting.”
“Yeah, I think that (people of color) can act differently,” said Martin Gonzalez of the Portland Schools Alliance. “But so do white people who are not from Oregon. So does that mean because they don’t act like a native-born Oregonian we should deny them the opportunity to be educated? Is the only acceptable way to get an education to act white? That’s pretty worrisome.”