Duval County Public Schools building
By DENISE AMOS
The Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nearly 80 percent of the students suspended last year from Duval public schools were African American, district data shows. More than 70 percent of students who served in-school detention were African American.
Seventy-percent of the students referred for discipline were African American and African American students make up 44 percent of Duval’s student body.
In contrast, white students are less likely to be suspended or punished than their numbers in the student population would suggest. Just 12 percent of the students suspended from school were white and 18 percent of those in in-school detentions were white.
White students are 36 percent of Duval’s student population.
Duval County, like many districts across the nation, struggles to close a “discipline gap,” in which black students are punished far more often than their numbers in the student body would indicate.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Ashley Smith Juarez recently asked interim Superintendent Patricia Willis for more data on disparate discipline and for ideas on ways to tackle it.
Willis is expected to include that in a teacher training plan she will unveil later this year, Smith Juarez said.
“To truly understand what is generating the disproportionate number of referrals issued to African American students, we have to conduct deeper inquiry,” Smith Juarez said.
“In short, the data gives an awareness that we need to ask more questions and solve for the reasons African American students are so over-represented.”
This isn’t a new situation for Duval.
District and community leaders in recent years closely scrutinized discipline numbers and former Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made promises to whittle down systemic inequalities in the district’s discipline practices and conduct code.
He tried a variety of things to bring down serious infractions and reduce disparities. The district rewrote its code of conduct, so punishments fit the misbehavior and discipline is meted out uniformly.
The district also trained principals, school resource officers and deans of discipline in cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution. School leaders also promoted “restorative justice” techniques instead of punishment and expanded mentoring, “wrap-around” family services and student behavioral health services.
Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Journey worked with the district to create and staff out-of-school suspension centers, called ATOSS centers, where suspended students could continue schoolwork under adult supervision. The centers are being phased out for lack of use, because students are more often given in-school suspensions than out-of-school suspensions.
Yet Duval’s discipline disparity remains.
Hank O. Rogers, a longtime youth advocate who served on the code of conduct committee, said Duval’s problem may not be with its programs but with people implementing them.
“I don’t blame the district or the former superintendent,” he said. “Many of the programs that the district created to curb behavior were not implemented at every school with fidelity. If they were, the conversation would indeed be different.”
He said parents and guardians also need to be better partners with educators, who sometimes are left with few alternatives to suspension.
“It’s not popular, but when you have parents who refuse to attend parent conferences, change their (phone) numbers throughout the school year and the school can’t reach them, it does leave administrators no other option,” he said. “Teachers and administrators attempt to use every method and intervention before (out-of-school suspension).” Schools are obligated to ensure safe environments and must send a message certain behaviors will not be tolerated, he said.
But at least one national study says school districts in the South are guiltier of disproportionate discipline than other regions of the country.
The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 examined 3,022 districts in 13 southern states including Florida. Schools in the South were responsible for 55 percent of all black student suspensions, and 50 percent of black student expulsions nationwide.
Nationwide 3 million students were suspended, 1.2 million of them African American. The study counts only out-of-school suspensions.
Florida schools suspended the most black students -121,468 in 2011-12 – the study said. Mississippi had the highest proportion of blacks suspended, 74 percent.
Blacks made up 100 percent of suspended students in 84 southern districts, and 75 percent or more of suspended students in 346 districts.
Yet blacks made up only 24 percent of the student population.
“We hope this report is not misused to reinforce deficit, criminalized narratives about black children,” wrote authors Edward J. Smith and Shaun Harper, at UPenn.
“The alarming data presented herein go beyond student misbehavior and bad parenting – they also are attributable to racist practices and policies in K-12 schools across the South.”
In Duval, “implicit bias” likely plays a role but there is not enough information to draw conclusions, Smith Juarez said. It’s also too soon to tell if the district’s various strategies for more equitable discipline are failing.
Timothy Sloan, a Duval parent, said he’d like to know which schools, teachers and principals generate the most discipline referrals, and what causes are listed for referrals. He also wants to know if schools in the poorest communities generate the most referrals and suspensions.
“What I think we should be focused on as it pertains to this topic is not the ‘cultural gap’ in the school district itself, but the culture of the leadership at the individual schools,” he said.
“Is there a trend in certain schools? This story comes out every year or two. The numbers and the mere conversation about this speaks volumes about us as parents, a community, a school district and a city.”