Philadelphia area students of color miss more school due to discipline

Over two-thirds of schools in the tri-state metro area have racial inequities in suspensions.
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Four-year-old twin boys Drayden and Draydarian are two "little balls of energy," according to their mother, Alexis Malone. They love cars, dinosaurs, playing and learning.

But when the boys started a new school in Wilmington this year, they were immediately designated "a problem," Malone said. In their first few days of school, Malone heard staff call her sons "troublemakers" and got phone calls from their teacher claiming they were acting out.

"I noticed that they were starting to be labeled," Malone said.

One day, the boys' teacher came up to Malone and told her she couldn't deal with her sons and that they needed to conform. She said there had been a "situation" where one of the boys was coloring an apple green instead of red, and when she told him to color the apple red, he shook his fist at her.

"He's four, and she said he was threatening her," Malone said. "Are you kidding me? Did you think he was a criminal?"

The teacher said she'd dared the boy to hit her and told him if he did, she would call the police on him, Malone added.

"I could not believe my ears when she said that." Malone said. "I was so angry." She immediately pulled her sons out of the school.

This wasn't the first time Malone had dealt with a school treating her children differently: She said a school in Maryland had previously dubbed her 13-year-old son "a problem."

"You're not going to label my child and have him go through the course of school being identified as a troublemaker, as a problem child," Malone said. "You're not going to label these children."

Black students like Malone's sons are disproportionately given these labels, experts say. And they're suspended from school at much higher rates, according to a 6abc analysis of school-reported data.

Across the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area, students of color are 3.7 times as likely as white students to miss days of school due to discipline, the 6abc analysis found. The gap is even larger between Black and white students, with Black students 5.5 times as likely to miss school from suspensions.

"I think there's cause for great consternation and alarm to get activated by this data," said Dr. Anne Gregory, a Rutgers University researcher who has studied racial disparities in suspensions -- and how schools can close these gaps -- for 15 years. She added that while schools across the country have reduced their use of suspensions in recent years, racial disparities in suspension rates persist.

More than two-thirds of schools in the tri-state metro area have racial disparities in suspensions, the 6abc analysis found.

Implicit bias and culturally rigid expectations

Disparities in school discipline often stem from misinterpretation of behaviors fueled by implicit bias, experts say.

"Black and brown kids are more likely to be suspended for subjective reasons," said Dr. Heather Bennett, Director of Equity Services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Bennett added that Black and brown students' behavior might be labeled "disrespectful" or "defiant" by teachers and principals who have been steeped in stereotypes that students of color are "aggressive, loud, violent, criminal."

Teachers' expectations for their students often don't account for cultural differences in behavioral norms, according to Dr. David Thomas, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement at Community College of Philadelphia. Thomas works with local schools to create equitable, rigorous educational environments for all students.

"American education tells students how they should act, what they should do, what they should say, and very often those expectations are created and communicated, I think, devoid of certain specific cultural expectations and norms," Thomas said. He added that expectations for students' behaviors at home may be very different from the expectations they face at school -- and that expectations at school may be less developmentally appropriate.

These rigid standards also lead to disproportionate discipline for boys and students with learning disabilities, Gregory said.

Even when displaying the same behavior as students of other races, Black students are often disciplined more harshly, Gregory noted. She added that schools with greater shares of Black students also tend to have a more punitive approach, so it's important "to think hard about access to supportive schools for Black students, that have a social and emotional learning emphasis."

The school Drayden and Draydarian attended has a predominantly Black student body, but its teachers are mostly white, Malone said. When she asked her sons if they ever noticed that their teacher was a different color than them, they said yes -- and asked if that was why she was "mean" to them.

White teachers may not have many interactions with people of other races outside of school, creating a cultural gulf between them and their students of color, said Dr. Eddie Fergus, Associate Professor of Urban Education and Policy at Temple University.

"The school becomes their main hub of developing and practicing those cross-cultural skills," Fergus said. These teachers' affinity biases shape the way they perceive students of different races and therefore how they respond to their behaviors in the classroom, he added.

When Fergus works with schools to combat these biases, he asks teachers to imagine the top actions that stand out to them when they think about students misbehaving -- and then to think about the imagery and the particular students that come to mind.

"That's the stuff that is plaguing the manner in which we are paying attention to the misbehaviors in our schools," he said.

A 'microcosm' of inequitable society

The impacts of disproportionate discipline reach beyond the classroom, Fergus and Thomas explained, mirroring and maintaining racial inequities in other areas of society.

"Schools serve as a microcosm of those sorts of inequities, and if they're not addressed, not discussed, not dismantled in schools, then they will be perpetuated externally," Thomas said.

Suspensions can set students back academically and even reinforce negative behavior, educators and administrators say. Missing school translates to lower levels of literacy and numeracy and higher dropout rates.

"If students are not in school, they're not going to learn," said Bennett. "It's a pretty simple equation."

When students are already struggling in school, suspensions increase their risk of dropping out, according to Gregory. And the consequences of those suspensions follow youth well beyond their schooling years: Students who receive suspensions are more likely to be arrested later in life than similar students who do not receive suspensions.

"If we don't address these issues earlier on in the educational pipeline, we will have to address these issues later on," said Thomas, "and potentially not in the educational pipeline, but in the criminal justice pipeline."

Closing the school discipline gap

To address implicit bias in discipline, Gregory said teachers should focus on developing relationships with their students, connecting with them around shared interests and trying to better understand the contexts from which they come to the classroom. She called for teachers to consider what their students "bring to the table in terms of different ways of being in class that can be honored, instead of seen as a deficit or kind of squelched."

Fergus added that teachers should think of students' misbehaviors as "showcasing behavioral needs," and respond with additional support rather than exclusionary discipline.

Some local schools are taking this approach through systems like Positive Behavior In Schools (PBIS), a program designed to provide students with extra support and positive reinforcement, rather than punitive measures for misbehavior.

In Alexis Banner's and Melissa Perez's classrooms at Overbrook Senior High School in Pine Hill, New Jersey, students are rarely suspended or removed from class. Instead, these teachers manage their classrooms through a point system that reinforces positive behavior, part of the school's PBIS program.

"It's created a more positive environment, and that transfers from the whole school to each individual classroom," Perez said.

PBIS operates in three tiers: a basic level of positive reinforcement provided to all students, followed by an additional layer of support through a staff mentor for students with repeated discipline, and finally individualized behavioral plans for a small share of students who demonstrate the greatest needs.

Overbrook Senior High School implemented the first tier of PBIS in the 2019-2020 school year and is currently rolling out the second tier. Banner hopes to launch the third tier next year.

"In my classroom I definitely have less issues, because I turned to the points instead of focusing on the negative behaviors," Banner said. "It definitely opens the door for more conversations to be had with the students, and when they see that you acknowledge them positively and correct them occasionally, they're more receptive."

Overbrook still sees racial disparities in its suspension rates, but they are less than half the size of the tri-state metro average. Banner credits PBIS.

"We created a committee that analyzes the data once a month to address if we have a high number of discipline referrals in a classroom," she said. "And then we've been able to turn key information to our staff at faculty meetings to offer them some additional support."

Select a school below to see its suspension rates among students of different races.

Systems of behavioral support and positive reinforcement are spreading throughout the region as an alternative to the exclusionary discipline that disproportionately affects students of color.

West Chester Area School District has adopted a program called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which is similar to PBIS. Director of Equity and Assessment Dawn Mader said MTSS has reduced racial disparities in discipline across the district.

"We have reflective meetings with students and teachers where we sit down, have a conversation and try to really unpack what's going on," Mader said. "We have guidance counselors involved, we have notes of acknowledgement and apology." She added that the district has been focused on equity work for over a decade, but that there is always more work to be done.

As its student body has diversified in recent years, Upper Merion Area School District has increased its focus on cultural proficiency and equitable school discipline, rolling out its own PBIS system four years ago.

Assistant Superintendent Susan Silver has been in the district for 13 years and is committed to closing the gaps in suspension rates. She's trained teachers to consider cultural differences and acknowledge their implicit biases.

"If a white child does the same infraction as a Black child, what does that look like? We've really brought that to the table with our staff to really take a look at themselves and say, 'What kind of infraction is that?'" Silver said.

Silver added that relationship building and culturally sensitive expectations are key to classroom management, and that suspensions should be a last resort.

"They're absolutely necessary at some point," she said. "But if you've done all that work upfront, if you've created that culture and that environment, that students want to be in your school, they feel loved, they feel supported, then you might never have to get to that point."

YouthBuild Philly, a charter school offering academic and vocational training to 18- to 20-year-olds, creates a supportive culture through restorative practices. Dannyelle Austin, YouthBuild's Chief Program Officer, said the school starts off each year by creating a community agreement, setting the stage for meaningful relationships to develop.

"Anytime a behavior arises that may typically lead to a suspension in other school environments, we respond very differently and really have a conversation with that young person to understand the impact that their choice had on themselves and the people around them, and how they might create a plan to restore with school and the community," Austin said.

When a student comes to school out of uniform, YouthBuild teachers check in with them about why they don't have a uniform and provide a shirt for them to borrow, rather than sending them home.

"When you send a young person home, oftentimes you're sending them into harmful spaces or environments that may not be ideal for them," Austin noted.

But YouthBuild's restorative work begins even before school rules are broken.

"The power of restorative is not in the reaction of what happens after an incident, but in all of the relationship building, the proactive work that helps to minimize those incidents from occurring in the first place," Austin said.

As schools across the Delaware Valley adopt more supportive and restorative practices, educators and administrators are hopeful that the changes will have long-lasting effects.

"The reason why I think my colleagues and I get up every day is because we know that if we do this work, we're going to impact the lives of young children, who will then be those adults, and maybe the world will be different," Silver said. "This is what we have to do. Because if we don't do it, we're going to just perpetrate the same disproportionality, the same prejudice, biases that have occurred in the past."

Malone hopes to see change too, and she's teaching her sons to remain positive and to treat everyone with kindness and compassion.

This report was produced with data from the Equity Report, a tool created by data journalists at Action News and our ABC-Owned Television Stations across the country. Now this database is available to officials working on solutions and to the public. You can go to https://ouramericaabc.com/equity-report to find the Equity Report. There you will be able to review equity data from various regions including the Philadelphia area. You will have access to local data measuring equity in five categories: Housing, Health, Education, Policing and Environment.
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