I strongly support the work of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies to close the racial "discipline gap." I want to be clear in my agreement with "Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?" by Daniel Losen et. al.
Part of my support, however, could be described as something that lawyers call a "concurring opinion." Students can't learn if they are not in class and we need to invest in Restorative Justice, and other alternatives to suspensions. Neither do I claim that educators are blameless or that we don't need to invest heavily in professional development. So, I concur with Losen's findings while worrying that systems will, once again, take the cheap and easy approach of claiming that better classroom instruction is enough to reduce suspensions.
Although I intensively studied nearly 15 years of Oklahoma City suspension data, and taught at the state's lowest performing high school, I am surprised that in the two years after I left the classroom that the Oklahoma City Public Schools became "one of the top ten highest-suspending districts at the secondary level for all students, and is the highest suspending district in the nation for black secondary students." Moreover, between 2010 and 2012, "overall suspension rates at the high school level also increased from 24.7 percent to 45.2 percent during the same period."
The latest database shows that at the secondary school level, OKCPS "suspension rates for Black students climbed dramatically from 36.3% to 64.2%." (I have my own theories on why, at a time when education funding was cut by 23%, the rate ballooned, but I will limit myself to what I witnessed and studied.)
The OKCPS experience confirms a key finding in the Consortium on Chicago School Research's Organizing Schools for Improvement. It identified the intertwined factors of discipline and attendance as prime reasons why troubled schools fail to improve. When the Consortium looked deeply into stalled reforms, its "most powerful single finding" was the relationship between attendance problems and the failure to manage disciplinary issues. Moreover, the Consortium, "found virtually no chance of improving attendance in schools that lacked safety and order," and "where instruction alignment was weak or predominantly basic skills oriented."
By 2009-2010 school year that was first studied by Losen et. al, the OKCPS had no choice but to invest all of its discretionary money for high schools in remediation for students who were failing their basic skills graduation exams. We were in the middle of the Great Recession which increased the state's homeless rate by 79%. The district barely had more than 40,000 students at any given time. Oklahoma City had 20,000 students who lived with their grandparents, foster parents, or other guardians, and most attended OKCPS neighborhood schools.
During that year, I had 227 students with the majority being on special education IEPs or English Language Learners; eighteen of my students volunteered that they were mentally ill and I suspected that the diagnosis applied to another dozen. Every day, a new student transferred in or out. The following is just one example of why our school was unable to do more than use suspensions as band aids for the intertwined problems of chronic truancy, violence, and disorder.
Between classes, a troubled student showed me a picture of her murdered brother, and said he appeared to her last night. A fight broke out in the hall and I could not keep her from running to join the battle. She was absent for the next few weeks.
That month, I also managed a couple of brief conversations in the hall with my affable first period student who was chronically absent. Then, he was murdered in a gang-related conflict. Before, our school had been provided counselors after killings, but none came this time. Worse, because of the supposed need to focus unflinchingly on classroom instruction, we kept to our professional development schedule and sent a fifth of our staff to training. Consequently, we were on a skeleton crew in the aftermath of a gang-related murder. Without adult supervision in the cafeteria, the predictable gang fights started during lunch and spread through the school.
Later that day, the student who had told me of the dream about her deceased brother returned to school. I was counseling her, when her guardian had a medical crisis. Rushing between emergencies, I overheard a middle school hall walker, who was cutting class and dancing awkwardly but not enjoying himself. A classmate asked him, "Did you see him die?"
"Yeah, I saw the whole thing."
The hall walker was the brother of my deceased student, but the guardian's possible life threatening condition took priority. I made a mental note to search for him, but he strayed from school, and I never had a chance.
I must emphasize that the cascade of such crises was not unusual. In addition to class instruction, our job as teachers was to rush to one challenge after another, without having the time or tools to get to the roots of our kids' problems. The same applied to the principals who assessed suspensions.
In a rational world, stories like those of my students would convince policymakers that schooling in the inner city must become a team effort. We would invest in early warning systems to address absenteeism before truancy spins out of control. We would invest in full-service schools and the medical and socio-emotional supports our students need. We would plan and fund programs like "Restorative Justice" and bring a second shift of counselors to help students work through their problems and thus head off anarchy and violence. If we can do so, "Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?" will have performed a great service.