Black Unified Students Suspended at Five Times the Rate of Whites

Caitlin Sievers, Journal Times, February 12, 2018

A quarter of black students in the Racine Unified School District received at least one out-of-school suspension during the 2015-16 school year.

During the same time frame, 7.2 percent of Hispanic students and 5 percent of white students were suspended. These three ethnic groups made up the majority of the student population in 2015-16, when 26.4 percent of students were black, 27 percent were Hispanic and 41 percent were white.

The percentage of black students suspended — or prohibited from going to school for up to five days — in 2015-16 was higher at Racine Unified than at either in the Kenosha Unified district or in Milwaukee Public Schools.

In that year — the most recent year for which data is available from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction — 21 percent of black Kenosha Unified students were suspended and 20 percent of black MPS students were suspended.

The trend for higher suspension rates for black students is prevalent throughout the Racine district — in the elementary schools through the high schools. At the vast majority of district schools, the black suspension rate was higher than for any other racial group. At most schools, it was significantly higher.

It should be noted that the suspension rate for black students statewide was higher than for any other racial group, at 17 percent.

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Eric Gallien, Racine Unified’s deputy superintendent who is set to become superintendent in July, said that many factors contribute to these numbers.

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Gallien believes that societal issues seeping into the schools and traumatic incidences that happen outside of school — but affect student behavior in the classroom — both contribute to the suspension numbers.

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Examples of these traumatic instances could be a fire that displaces a family or a sudden death of a loved one.

“Families have challenges around poverty issues, abuse, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, all of those variables,” Gallien said.

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Racine Unified’s suspension rates for black students were highest in its middle schools. At three of them, nearly half of students were suspended during the 2015-16 school year.

At Gilmore Middle School, 2330 Northwestern Ave., 47.5 percent of black students were suspended in 2015-16. At Jerstad-Agerholm Middle School, 3601 La Salle St., 44.4 percent of black students were suspended; and at McKinley Middle School, 2340 Mohr Ave., 51.6 percent of black students were suspended.

Gallien believes that this is due to developmental changes that take place during middle school compounding on top of outside traumas and other societal factors.

“What’s typical middle school-age behavior is amplified when you factor in all those other variables,” he said.

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The district recommends or allows student suspension for violent behaviors, habitual disruptions and behavior that endangers other students, Gallien said.

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Hicks said that her organization is most concerned that students of all races receive the same punishment for equal infractions.

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The district has implemented school-based mental health clinics at some of its schools. It also provides targeted support for students who frequently engage in suspendable behavior, working with parents for a team approach.

During its last budget process, the Racine Unified School Board provided funding to expand its Circles of Support program, which aims to curb student behavior issues.

Staff are undergoing professional training on social and emotional issues, mental health first aid and trauma-informed care to help them better understand student behavior. They’re also learning about cultural responsiveness.

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“Hopefully, with the new things that they’re implementing we will see where those numbers are beginning to go down,” she said. “I think the most important thing is that the NAACP and RUSD are working together to bring about the change that’s going to be necessary just to make sure kids are not disproportionately being dealt with harshly.”

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The local branch of the NAACP has been meeting with the Unified superintendent and the superintendent’s cabinet quarterly for about 10 years to discuss various issues, including the black suspension rate. The NAACP recently asked the district to supply it with suspension data on a monthly basis to more closely monitor the situation.

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