Young, black males more likely to be suspended in Kansas City schools

Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell says he’s hopeful the district will regain state accreditation.
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell says he’s hopeful the district will regain state accreditation. The Star

Young, black students who attended a school in Kansas City last year were five times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates, according to a data analysis by the Kansas City Health Department.

Black kids also spent longer periods in suspension than their peers and were more likely than other non-white students to get an out-of school suspension.

“There are severe, and I do mean severe, racial and gender inequities when it comes to suspension in Kansas City schools,” Mayor Sly James said Wednesday as he addressed a group of educators gathered for a education summit on suspension hosted by the mayor’s office, Turn the Page KC and the health department.

The summit was meant to ramp up conversations about school discipline that educators say have been ongoing, particularly since the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA revealed in a 2015 study that Missouri suspended black elementary students at a higher rate than any other state in the 2011-12 school year.

Kansas City data from last year show similar racial disparities.

The Kansas City health department looked at Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data for preschool through eighth-grade students in all schools within Kansas City’s boundaries and classified more than 9,500 incidents of classroom removal for the 2015 and 2016 school years.

Though black students make up only 40 percent of the 40,000 elementary school students who attended schools in Kansas City, Missouri between 2015 and 2016, 75 percent of the kids removed from the classroom last year were black.

Data analysis also shows that though the number of boys and girls enrolled in Kansas City schools is fairly equal, teachers are 75 percent more likely to discipline boys than girls. And in Kansas City, black boys are removed from the classroom at higher rates than any other race.

“This mirrors what we see nationally in the research,” said Sarah Martin-Anderson, the health department’s community engagement, policy and accountability manager. “Black boys are our highest risk population for school suspension and expulsion.”

Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell said Wednesday that only recently has the school district taken a hard look at suspension data. He said the Kansas City district would “take ownership” of the high rate of suspensions among black boys in schools throughout the city.

Since the 2015 UCLA study, Kansas City school officials have said they have worked to reduce school suspensions and to better take into consideration the behavioral, economical and social issues that factor into discipline issues, as well as the educational consequences of pulling a kid out of class.

Research shows that students who are more frequently suspended are more likely to drop out of school, become incarcerated or engage in violence.

Data show that the rate of suspension increased for all students from 2015 to 2016, though the department’s data did suggest that educators are more frequently turning to in-school suspension.

Bedell said the district needs to take a different approach to pulling kids out of school for minor infractions that often amount to a child having “a bad day” or a difficult night at home.

Incidents that provoke suspensions are hard for districts to classify and quantify. In Kansas City, all disruptive behavior that is not related to drugs, alcohol, violence or weapons is labeled “other.”

It’s that kind of behavior that makes up the overwhelming majority of suspensions in Kansas City, according to the health department data.

Bedell recalls a student who wore sagging pants to school every day when Bedell was an assistant principal at a Houston high school in 2007.

Bedell would get on the student’s case about pulling up his pants and finally, frustrated with his defiance, threatened to suspend him.

“He puts his hand on my shoulder. When I looked he had a tear in his eye,” Bedell recalled. “He said, you know what, I’ve been kicked out. I’m homeless. You are here jumping on me about sagging pants and I don’t have a place to live.

“The truth is a lot of time they are just crying out for help. And we have to take the time. Not every student is going to show up to school the way we want them to on a daily basis.

“Putting a child out of school for three or four days, the more they fall behind,” Bedell said. “The more they get behind, the more likely they are to drop out of school.”

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc