Tuesday, February 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> Discipline an issue in PCSSD

Leader staff writer

Black students made up 44.2 percent of the Pulaski County Special School District’s 2011-12 enrollment. But 63 percent of the students who were suspended last school year were black, only 2 percent less than in 2010-11.

These figures don’t bode well for the fiscally distressed PCSSD as it crawls toward a resolution of the decades-old desegregation case. Closing the gap in discipline rates between blacks and non-blacks is one of the goals listed in the district’s desegregation plan — known as Plan 2000.

PCSSD receives between $17 million and $20 million in desegregation money for programs like majority to minority transfers. If the district is declared desegregated, court supervision of PCSSD will end.

By comparison, the Cabot School District isn’t struggling with a gap. Its student population is 90 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black. Less than half a percent of blacks receive discipline.

How is PCSSD combating disproportionate discipline rates?

The district is using a dual-approach that involves social and academic remedies, according to Brenda Bowles, assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services.

“You can’t separate the two. You have to look at the big picture. Schools are not just academic institutions. They’re social institutions. They’re interdependent,” Bowles said.

PCSSD has a discipline committee that meets every two or three months, she continued. The committee is helping the school pilot intervention and credit recovery programs.

During an intervention, a committee member or members, the principal, the teacher, the parents and a response to intervention staff member try to identify the cause for the student’s misbehavior and brainstorm solutions.

Bowles said, “It’s got to be prescriptive.”

She explained that when students are always late to class, those involved in the response-to-intervention program will ask them why they are always tardy. Parents would be informed of the problem and asked if they know the cause of the misbehavior.

“We want to do what can we do to make sure he comes to class,” Bowles said.

She said the cause could be bullying, that the student doesn’t realize he could fail a class because of his tardiness or it could be that the student’s previous class is on the other end of the school’s campus.

Solutions to the misbehavior could include having the student sign in when he comes to class and rewarding him for being on time, Bowles noted.

She said district officials are visiting schools with an excess of disciplinary problems or more of a disparity in their rates.

The schools with the greatest number of students suspended in the 2011-12 school year of students suspended in the 2011-12 school year were Bates Elementary School in Little Rock, Pinewood Elementary School in Jacksonville, Taylor Elementary School in Jackson-ville, Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville Middle School and Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood.

PCSSD is also looking at whether there are cultural reasons related to black students misbehaving more than white students, whether more black students are victims of “special circumstances” and how repeat rule-breakers affect the gap.

The committee is compiling a report to explore why there is a gap in discipline rates between blacks and non-blacks. It should be completed by the end of the year, Bowles said.

PCSSD is also addressing academic needs that could be related to disciplinary problems, she continued.

One of the things the district is doing is allowing students who fail the first nine weeks of a class to repeat that part of the course during the second nine weeks.

In this way, a student can pass the class and not be retained, Bowles said. She explained that the new program also keeps a student from being discouraged, which can lead to misbehavior.

“We try to give students more success, better choices, better options. Research hasn’t supported retention,” she said.

Discipline is not one of the areas PCSSD asked U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall to look at in the fall.

PCSSD attorney Sam Jones said the district submitted a status report this month requesting that the judge examine whether it has achieved unitary status in student assignment, advanced placement, gifted and talented and honor programs and special education and staffing.

The district expects the judge to hold a series of hearings in August and September on those issues, Jones said.

Plan 2000 requires that minorities be sufficiently represented in advanced placement classes and not over represented in special education classes, the recruiting of more minorities for professional positions and the elimination of one-race classrooms, he continued.

The state Education Department took control of PCSSD in 2011, disbanding the school board and replacing then-superintendent Charles Hopson with Dr. Jerry Guess.

Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell is acting as the district’s one-man school board. Last month, he said he would ask the Legislature to extend the two years of supervision allowed by state law to five years. That would give PCSSD three more years to get out of fiscal distress.

No extension means that if the district isn’t out of fiscal distress by June the state can disband it, annex it to another district or move various schools to other districts.

The Cabot School District isn’t dealing with the problems PCSSD has, especially when it comes to disciplining black students.

Black students make up about 3 percent of the district’s enrollment. White students are about 90 percent of the student body while the second highest student population — about 4 percent — is Hispanic.

Of the 74 Cabot students who received corporal punishment last year, one student was black, one was of another race and 72 were white.

PCSSD doesn’t practice corporal punishment.

In Cabot, 37 black students, 41 students of another race and 743 white students received out-of-school suspension during 2011-12. Of the 1,118 Cabot students who received in-school suspension, 52 were black, 56 were of another race and 1,010 were white.

Of the 3,300 PCSSD students who were assigned to in-school suspension, 2,080 — 63 percent — were black.

Both of the districts saw more students punished with in-school suspension than with out-of-school suspension.

There were 81 more in-school suspensions in PCSSD than out-of-school suspensions.

In Cabot, there were 297 more in-school suspensions than out-of school suspensions.

According to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the state ranks 15th in the nation in the use of out-of-school suspension for all students and 13th in the gap between black and white students in out-of-school suspensions.

A news release from the organization makes the point that out-of-school suspension decreases the learning opportunities of the students who misbehave. Also, according to the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, suspensions and expulsions can cause lower graduation rates and students with three or more suspensions by their sophomore year are five times more likely to drop out.

Bowles said a PCSSD student could receive five days of in-school suspension every year because of capacity issues. Those five days are usually split into half-days or a couple of days depending on what the punishment is for.

Bowles said, “Being out of school doesn’t help them pass (courses). It gives them more opportunity to get in trouble.”

She said alternative responses to correcting misbehavior include detention hall, a behavior contract, a school discipline management plan, a home school consultant or counselor, a mental health provider, a multi-age classroom, community service and mentoring programs.

Some of the rule violations that a student could receive out-of-school suspension for are gambling, smoking, fighting, theft, vandalism and sexual harassment, Bowles said. PCSSD does not have any zero-tolerance policies that automatically result in out-of-school suspension, she noted. But state law requires that a student who brings a gun to school be expelled, Bowles added.

Cabot Superintendent Tony Thurman said out-of-school suspension could vary from a few hours, typically for the remainder of the day on which the student misbehaves, up to 10 days depending on the behavior.

He continued, “We limit the amount of time a student is out of school as much as possible. It is very common, depending on the severity of a behavior, to do a combination of out-of-school and in-school suspension for the purpose of having the student attending school.”

Thurman said building administrators decide an appropriate punishment for a student who misbehaves. “The punishment and duration, if applicable, considered by our administrators should be set at the minimum level necessary to correct the misbehavior and provide an appropriate consequence,” he noted.