Kelly House, The Oregonian, October 3, 2014
For the third time since 2009, Portland Public Schools is facing state sanctions for suspending and expelling black special education students at a rate far higher than the general student body.
Under the Oregon Department of Education reprimand handed down in early August, PPS must dedicate $1.5 million, or 15 percent of its federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act dollars for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, to improving its track record of over-disciplining black students who qualify for special education.
The sanctions follow Superintendent Carole Smith’s announcement that cutting back on so-called “exclusionary discipline” is a major priority this year.
The state department used discipline figures for the 2012-13 school year to determine that black PPS students who qualify for special education faced long-term suspension or expulsion at a rate five times more frequent than their peers in the general student body.
State standards mandate that racial and ethnic minority special education students cannot be disciplined more frequently than four times the rate of the general student body. In addition to this year, PPS missed that benchmark in 2009 and in 2011.
PPS was one of three Oregon districts to found to be in violation of the state standards, along with Albany and North Marion. North Marion successfully appealed its sanctions.
District special education director Mary Pearson said she “wasn’t shocked” by the sanctions, given the district’s history of failing to meet equitable discipline standards.
District-wide, 17 percent of black students were suspended or expelled in 2012-13, compared to only 4 percent of white students.
In response to this year’s sanction, PPS will dedicate a portion of its federal special education funds to so-called “early intervention,” training school psychologists and teachers to do a better job of meeting minority students’ needs before they end up in trouble.
Pearson said the plan was “already in the works well before we knew that we were going to be sanctioned.” As a result, she said, no PPS programs will lose funding so the district can respond to the sanctions.
She noted that although a wide gap between black students and white students still exists, PPS’ overall discipline rates have decreased. Nineteen black special education students were expelled or suspended in 2012-13, an improvement from 44 in 2009-10.
Smith has said she wants to cut the district’s suspension and expulsion rate in half this year, while closing the gap between black and white students. During an interview with The Oregonian earlier this year, Smith noted that when kids are excluded from school as punishment, they fall behind in classes and their education suffers.
Last week, the school board gave her permission to use $4 million of a recently discovered $16.8 million windfall to pursue that and two other goals. Smith has yet to spell out how the money will be spent, but she has hinted that restorative justice programs, which ask students to think about how their actions impact the school rather than resorting to punishment, could be a part of the plan.