By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The number of students suspended in Tupelo public schools is disproportionately slanted toward low-income students and black males, a situation that has attracted the attention of district leaders.
For the first six months of the 2009-10 school year, more than 90 percent of those receiving suspensions qualified for the free-reduced lunch program. Sixty-six percent were black males.
District leaders have acknowledged the disparity and said the district needs to correct it by reviewing discipline policies and intervening with students who are struggling.
It must also determine whether different children are being disciplined the same way.
“When you see those kinds of numbers and the disparity of those numbers, you can’t help but be concerned,” School Board President Lee Tucker said. “That is why we have to look at each case individually to ensure that it is being properly administered.”
One way for the district to correct the suspension disparity is by reviewing the way it disciplines students for fighting.
Superintendent Randy Shaver said that students are sometimes sent to the alternative school or expelled even for minor roles in fights.
Shaver said students should be expelled for offenses such as bringing dangerous weapons to school, selling drugs and severe fights with profuse bleeding or broken bones.
But other cases, he said, call for different interventions.
He said students who are expelled are most likely to drop out and least likely to finish school.
“As we get into this, we are finding that we are practicing zero tolerance for a lot of infractions that we don’t have to practice zero tolerance for,” Shaver said.
The district also will use proactive mentor programs. Last year, Tupelo High School began a program that matches mentors with struggling freshmen students.
A couple of weeks ago, Assistant Superintendents George Noflin and Fred Hill began to put together another program that will match black mentors with black students.
The program will begin with seniors who need a push to graduate.
“We have the responsibility to treat them like they are our children,” Shaver said.
Noflin said that when educators show students they are cared for, it makes a difference.
“If they know you care about them, they’re going to do what it takes to not get in trouble and disappoint you,” he said.
Tucker cited the district’s use of early interventions to identify students who are having problems in lower grades and give them hands-on help. He said another key tool is the Early Childhood Education Center, the district’s school for 4-year-old children with high academic need.
The school helps prepare those children for kindergarten.
“We need to make sure we’re equitable,” Shaver said. “That means making sure those historically underserved groups get more time and money and attention and then do what we can for the group as a whole.”
The suspension report, which was presented at the March 9 school board meeting, was requested by district leaders and the school board.
Realizing there was likely a disparity, the district asked Noflin to study all suspensions issued by the district between Aug. 14, 2009, and Jan. 28, 2010.
“Before you can address a problem, you have to realize you have a problem,” Noflin said. “This is probably a shocker and an eye-opener and a realization that you have an issue.”
Noflin’s statistics were not an anomaly for this year. In 2008-09, 94.2 percent of suspended students were free and reduced lunch students and 65 percent were black males.
A year earlier, 92 percent were low-income and 60.6 percent were black males.
“We need to become a data-based school system,” Shaver said. “We need to make all of our decisions based on the data available to us. If it is disproportionate, then there has to be a different way to do it. We want to hold kids accountable, but there has to be a different approach.”
The disparity also exists for students assigned to the Fillmore Center, the district’s alternative school for students with behavior problems. In 2008-09, almost 61 percent of the 199 students assigned to the school were black males.
“You don’t sit down as a principal and look at the whole picture when you suspend a child,” Noflin said. “You think about the individual child. We need to look at our process and do what is best for children.”
A recent curriculum audit of the district by outside auditors stressed Tupelo’s need to close the gap between its highest and lowest achieving students.
Tucker has also said that closing that gap is one of his goals as board president. He said that behavior is a key component.
“There is a very distinct correlation between children with behavior problems and children who perform poorly in school,” Tucker said. “I think the children who don’t do well in school aren’t connected in school and don’t have good relationships in school and end up having trouble in both of these areas.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.