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Missouri’s suspension rate of black elementary students highest in the nation

More than 14 percent of black students were suspended at least once in Missouri during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. That compared to 7.6 percent of black students nationwide.
More than 14 percent of black students were suspended at least once in Missouri during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. That compared to 7.6 percent of black students nationwide. Cover illustration for Civil Rights Project report

Missouri suspends black elementary students at a higher rate than any other state in the nation, according to a national study released Monday.

Missouri’s gap between suspension rates of black and white elementary students also is the nation’s largest.

More than 14 percent of black elementary students were suspended at least once in Missouri during the 2011-2012 school year, compared to 7.6 percent of black students nationwide.

Meanwhile, Missouri’s suspension rate for white elementary students mirrored the national percentage of 1.6, according to the report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

That adds up to a 12.5-percentage point gap in Missouri, compared to a 6-point gap in the nation.

Missouri’s disparity is driven largely by St. Louis Public Schools and the neighboring Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts — and also the Kansas City Public Schools.

The Kansas City district said Monday that it has been focusing more efforts to reduce suspensions in the past 21/2 years since the data was compiled.

St. Louis suspended 29.1 percent of its black elementary students at least once in 2011-2012, followed by Normandy at 21.7 and Riverview Gardens at 21.4. Kansas City also suspended more than 20 percent of its black students.

Among all Missouri elementary students, the suspension rate was 3.8 percent.

The numbers are compiled from civil rights data at the U.S. Department of Education that are collected every two years from every school district through state education departments. The data in the study released Monday are the latest available.

Kansas City officials said the district is reducing its suspension rate. Its suspensions spiked in 2011-2012 as the district was going through a heavy closure of schools, Superintendent Steve Green said.

Kansas City will show a decline with the next federal data collection, he said, based on preliminary data.

Several efforts, including joining President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, are “part of our comprehensive game plan to attack these areas” and push toward no out-of-school suspensions in the coming school year, Green said.

Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, agreed that suspensions are down.

The district now has an alternative school setting for both secondary and elementary students that has helped meet more students’ needs, Flinders said. The elementary schools also are improving their discipline effort using the national Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports programming.

The work to keep more children in school is not easy, she said, “because some behaviors are severe.”

In Kansas — which was close to the national average — 1.6 percent of all elementary students were suspended at least once. That rate was 6.5 percent for black students and 1 percent for white students.

Missouri’s numbers are “very disturbing,” said Dan Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, in a conference call with reporters.

“It’s emblematic of problems (in the communities) and indicators of racial bias,” he said. He noted that many districts in Missouri did not have high suspension rates, but the biggest concerns were shown in districts that have high concentrations of black students and poor students.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education called on school districts to make their own careful analysis of their data.

“In light of this data showing the disparity in suspension rates for black and white students, the Department urges districts to take a close look at discipline policies and determine how schools can keep students engaged and learning in school,” department spokeswoman Sarah Potter said in a written statement.

Missouri stood at the head of what Losen described as a disturbing nationwide trend.

More than 3.5 million elementary and secondary students in the nation were suspended at least one day, totaling more than 18 million lost days of instruction, he said.

And black students are disproportionately represented, he said.

“We can’t ignore this huge discipline gap,” Losen said.

Students are suspended for many reasons, usually connected with behavioral issues such as fighting, making dangerous threats or vandalism. The researchers unpacking the data nationwide aim to make more analysis with this and future data, but they believe that “the lion’s share of suspensions are for minor offenses,” Losen said.

Janel George, senior education policy counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the study should spur schools and communities to action.

“The nation can’t close the achievement gap if we don’t close the discipline gap,” she said during the conference call.

Missouri also ranked poorly in suspensions of secondary students — who are generally suspended at a much higher rate across the board than elementary students.

Missouri secondary schools suspended 27 percent of black students and 7 percent of white students, for a gap of 20 points — the fourth highest in the nation.

Kansas secondary schools suspended 19 percent of black students and 5 percent of white students, for a gap of 14 points.

Among area Missouri school districts, in addition to Kansas City’s 10-point gap between black and white elementary students, Fort Osage showed a gap of 9.81 points at the elementary level.

Elementary gaps were small in Missouri otherwise. Several districts suspended black students at a slightly lower rate than white students, including Excelsior Springs, Kearney, Oak Grove and Pleasant Hill.

In Kansas, the Kansas City, Kan., School District showed a gap in elementary school between black and white suspensions of 8.26 percentage points. Some districts suspended black elementary students at a slightly lower rate than white students, including Blue Valley, Bonner Springs, De Soto and Gardner Edgerton.

Gaps were spread across a wider range at the secondary school level.

In area Missouri districts, Hickman Mills showed a gap of 23.6 points between black and white student suspension rates. Kansas City’s gap was 19.8 points.

Several Missouri districts suspended black secondary students at lower rates that white students, including Excelsior Springs, Grandview, Oak Grove and Pleasant Hill.

In Kansas at the secondary level, Shawnee Mission had a gap of 15.4 percentage points, according to the analysis. Gardner Edgerton’s gap was 9.2 points, and Olathe had a gap of 8.5 points.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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