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What are schools doing to close the ‘discipline gap’?


Missouri suspends African-American grade school students at a higher rate than any other state in the country.  This was a key finding in a national reportissued last week by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.  But troubled districts have been making some progress.

While the study is new, the underlying issue is not. The findings fall in line with long-recognized disparities in education between African-American students and their white counterparts, ranging from being labeled as learning disabled to enrollment in gifted programs.  

Using data from the 2011-12 school year, the report singled out three local school districts -- Riverview Gardens, Normandy and St. Louis Public Schools -- as being in the top 10 nationally for at least one student discipline category. In the wake of the findings, officials with all three districts say that challenges remain but progress has been made to ensure school discipline policies are fair to all students, regardless of race. And while experts agree that no single approach can close what’s been called a discipline gap, many think helping educators recognize their own biases and improving teacher training are good places to start.  

In Normandy

More than 90 percent of Normandy's students are African-American and most qualify for free and reduced price lunch.  A report a few years ago branded north St. Louis County school district's high school as the most dangerous in the area, but there's been a drop in disciplinary incidents, according to assistant superintendent Candice Carter-Oliver.

Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio

District figures show that 10-day suspensions peaked at 293 in the 2009-10 school year, and popped up again to 269 in 2011-12 after a one-year drop. Since then, they have fallen steadily, to 149 in 2012-13 and 103 in 2013-14. In that last year, the district’s student population fell by about 1,000 students who transferred to nearby accredited districts after Missouri’s transfer law was upheld.

At the start of the current school year, discipline issues at the district’s high school and middle school flared up again, prompting administrators to summon parents to meetings before their children would be allowed back to class.

Carter-Oliver said conditions have improved since then, for the most part. But a big part of the problem stems from the fact that so much of the district’s staff is new, hired since it became the Normandy Schools Collaborative July 1. 

“Almost 50 percent of the staff is new, so we are having to cultivate staff in learning strategies and being a part of a culture that is of service to the students,” she said. “So that's really been a big portion of the work this year: learning more about ourselves, interacting with ourselves in a way that is conducive and produces the kind of culture that generates success.”

That learning curve is particularly steep for any teachers their first year in the classroom, Carter-Oliver said.

“When you're a first-year teacher,” she said, “you will learn some things on the job, by looking at other teachers, by getting more research and professional development, going to your administration and asking for support. We have a full-time behavioral specialist at Normandy Middle. We have secondary counselors who came with new strategies. 

“It's really all of that put together. We have had to clarify expectations: What is acceptable behavior, what is not, what are responses to that?”

A recent presentation to the new Normandy governing board showed that in the first semester of the current school year, incidents at the middle school were down in most grades. At the same time, teachers at the school have continued to complain about lack of discipline as well as other issues, such as cleanliness and a general lack of support.

Carter-Oliver said teachers and others have to make sure they are interpreting situations the right way.

“Sometimes what we perceive as misbehavior is really not,” she said. “It's just indicative of the culture that our students come to school with. We need to (know) what the difference is, in terms of culture and misbehavior, and also really determine why a child might be misbehaving.

“Let's say it's a uniform infraction: What might be the root cause of the uniform infraction? Not necessarily, I came to school and didn't want to wear a uniform today. It may be that my uniform isn't clean, or I had to let one of my siblings wear the shirt that I was supposed to wear today. So there are some other things, root causes and questions that we ask to get to the root of the problem. And it's not always a harsh consequence, like a suspension, to rectify what the real problem is.”

To deal with a tight budget, Normandy is spending less on security than it has in past years. Carter-Oliver said the district is trying to make up for that reduction by using outside funds, such as a grant from the Regional Business Council, to cover safety at extracurricular activities.

But one of the real flash points where discipline can be a problem is the cafeteria, where she noted a lot of student interactions are going on all around the room.

'It's a very difficult road for us to walk. Some parents believe school can make their children act in ways they are unable or unwilling to do.' -- Normandy security employee Fred Abernathy

That situation was the topic of a report to the district’s governing board in August by security employee Fred Abernathy. He noted that Normandy had had to deal with some incidents of cyberbullying, but more often the difficulties are more physical, and the schools can’t always handle situations that start in the home.

“It’s a very difficult road for us to walk,” Abernathy told the board. “Some parents believe school can make their children act in ways they are unable or unwilling to do…. If I have one child in a household with an issue, I’ve got a household with an issue.”

Problems with weapons or threats are “a daily challenge,” he added, and district personnel have to pay attention to what’s going on.

“The more we listen,” Abernathy said, “the better we can see who is upset with whom.”

And the cafeteria is a place where vigilance is particularly required, he added.

“Once you see food in the air,” he said, “if you don’t stop it right way, then it gets to be group activity and group play.”

In Riverview Gardens

Almost all students attending the Riverview Gardens School District are African-American and close to 80 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunch. During the 2011-12 school year, slightly more than 21 percent of elementary school and more than 49 percent of high school and middle school students were suspended at least once, according the report according to the report from the Civil Center for Rights Remedies at UCLA. Like Normandy, that landed the district in the top 10 nationally for both categories.    

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon

When Scott Spurgeon took over as superintendent for Riverview Gardens School District during the 2012-13 school year, he said the number of suspended students was a problem.     

“One of my ‘non-negotiables’ coming into the district was for us as an organization to treat students with respect, but also work collaboratively with one another,” said Spurgeon.  

Spurgeon said the district’s strategy leans heavily on aPositive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system, which focuses on rewarding children for good behavior. When a student’s behavior is less than positive, the system requires that teachers and counselors develop strategies for addressing the root causes of bad behavior before suspending a student.

“The way you monitor and hold people accountable is your presence in buildings,” Spurgeon said.  “I’m scheduled in at least four buildings every week, and all my central office team members are required to be in every single building twice a month.”

Spurgeon said administrators are also doing a better job partnering with mental-health providers to provide services for students. So far, the total number of days suspended is down 56 percent and the number of long-term out-of-school suspensions is down 37 percent compared to the 2011-12 school year, according to Spurgeon.  

In St. Louis

In St. Louis Public Schools, the UCLA report found that a little more than 29 percent of African-American elementary school students were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year. Superintendent Kelvin Adams said administrators are going through the data to understand better what happened.  But like Riverview Gardens, he said, the number of out of school suspensions has declined -- dropping from 8,455 suspensions for all grades during the 2011-12 school year to 3,989 last year.    

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams

Adams said central office staff began paying closer attention to discipline around the same time as the data in the UCLA report were being collected.  The district is also working with Norman White, a Saint Louis University criminologist, to help identify how teachers can ensure minority children are treated fairly.  

“I don’t think some staff even recognize what they’re doing, they’re just responding to behavior,” Adams said. “They’re not even recognizing that they’re biased in any way, shape or form in how they treat kids.”

Administrators are looking for grant money to step up training on how implicit racial bias plays out in schools, Adams said.  The district has also started putting a PBIS system in place at some schools. Recently two schools in the district earned the label “Missouri School of Character,” a first for the school system with a little more than 27,000 students.  

While improving professional develop is one part of the district's strategy, Adams said more can be done to prepare future educators to work with minority students who disproportionately struggle with poverty, housing instability and hunger. 

"Some of them are just trying to survive," Adams said.  “They’re simply trying to make it through the year.” 

That pressure, he said, can lead to a new teacher making a snap judgment that can add up to a biased approach toward student discipline.    

Remaking the teacher pipeline

Nancy Lewis is an instructional coach for the Hazelwood School District who works with first-year teachers.  Roughly 72 percent of the north St. Louis County district’s approximately 18,000 students are African-American.

To explain how racial biases can play out in the classroom, Lewis laid out a scenario in which two Kindergartners – one African-American and one white – each throw a crayon across a classroom.      

“The white child may be perceived as not acting correctly or being a boy and he may get time out” Lewis said. "Whereas the black child may have the same low level behavior and he may be sent to the office.”

Being labeled a “bad kid” can send ripples through a child’s school career.  And Lewis said making sure students are treated fairly often starts by helping teachers unearth any of their own racial or cultural biases. 

“Almost every person who goes through the process of self-reflection and introspection, their behaviors change,” Lewis said.  “The way they look at others, the way they interact with others.”

'Almost every person who goes through the process of self-reflection and introspection, their behaviors change.' -- Nancy Lewis, Hazelwood School District

The approach takes time, but she said the process is especially critical for new teachers who may find their first year in the classroom a dizzying experience. While creating more pathways for African-Americans to find careers in education would help, Lewis said, it wouldn’t be a sure-fire remedy for racial disparities in discipline.

“Even with African-American teachers, if they have not grown up in some of the surroundings that some of their students have, it’s difficult for them to perceive why the children behave the way they behave,” Lewis said.

Ultimately, she said, closing what’s been called a discipline gap starts with better preparing teachers before they reach the classroom.

“It’s really become up to teacher education institutions to say, ‘what is our mission around this’” said Carole Basile, dean of the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).    

'It's really become up to teacher education institutions to say, what is our mission around this.' -- Carole Basile, UMSL's dean of the College of Education.

In recent years, UMSL has woven courses on social justice and cultural competence into its teacher training. Students are also required to spend more time in the classroom. They work in teams at “studio-schools” that broaden the typical student teaching experience to include a more diverse set of viewpoints.  On top of that, teaching candidates must now work with community services that surround schools in cities.   

“So that they become immersed in understanding families and kids prior to getting into a school experience,” Basile said.  

Alexander Cuenca, a professor of education at Saint Louis University, said the university is developing specialized teacher training programs for districts like St. Louis Public Schools. But he said colleges of education must also do a better job preparing principals to tailor and enforce discipline policies that fit the needs of students in specific buildings.

“Teachers ultimately enact the policies that are given to them by principals,” Cuenca said.  “So if we have a ‘zero-tolerance school’ people are ultimately going to act in the manner.”

None of this is easy, Cuenca said, nor will it happen over night.  Amid all the pressures teachers are under to raise or maintain test scores, he said, some teachers will continue to find that the most efficient solution is to send a child to the office rather than understand what’s at the root of behavior that can be deemed disruptive.  

“That’s when we get the patterns that we’re seeing across all these school districts,” he said. 

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.
Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.