State Board Looks At Racial Disparity in Expulsions, Alternative Education Programs

A strong academic program for students who are expelled made all the difference for a Hartford high school student who asked that he simply be called Nate.

A star athlete, honors student and new-arrival from Jamaica, Nate wound up in a fight his sophomore year in high school and was expelled for 180 days and sent to Hartford’s New Visions program for expelled students.

There, he was able to continue his academics, earned A’s in the program and is now a senior on track to graduate this year with hopes of attending UConn.

“When you’re expelled, people look at you like a bum and a dropout,” Nate said recently. “I’ve proven people wrong.”

Nate’s successful return to school is the kind of trajectory that state officials hope to see for any student expelled — though they also want to see the number of expulsions decreased — but for many such students around the state, the only program offered is a few hours of tutoring a week, or only homework, or nothing at all.

Experts say that students who fall behind in school are more likely to drop out and dropouts are far more likely than high school graduates to be arrested and wind up in jail. Sixty-eight percent of all men in state or federal prisons have no high school diploma.

Last week, the State Board of Education grappled with expulsion, the reasons for it, the persistent racial disparity among those expelled, and learned about the wide range in the quality of educational programs available to an expelled student, as well as hearing from two districts that have excelled in reducing expulsions.

Under state law, the State Board of Education is responsible for adopting standards for alternative educational programs for expelled students. The board was supposed to do so by Aug. 15, but missed that deadline.

In September, a subcommittee of the board considered a draft of guidelines that would have required that alternative program to be a “full time comprehensive experience, where the time devoted to instruction and learning is comparable to what the student would experience in a regular school environment.”

Since then state officials say they have been working with local school districts, as well as education advocacy groups and school lawyers, on the guidelines. It’s not clear when the guidelines will be completed or when the board will vote on them.

A lawsuit filed by the Center for Children’s Advocacy and other legal groups claims that plaintiffs in the case — expelled students who have experienced inadequate educational programs — have had their constitutional rights violated. The suit is yet to be settled.

Marisa Halm, an attorney for the Center for Children’s Advocacy said, “We certainly hope that they can issue guidance sooner rather than later. We are concerned that there are expelled students who continue to languish in inappropriate programs.”

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the board that the state has to figure out if there are times when students of different races are treated differently for the same offense.

While the overall number of expulsions has declined by 21 percent the past five years, the racial disparity persists.

“I think we can do some testing to see if we have basically the educational disciplinary equivalent of ‘driving while black,’ Wentzell said.“We need to take a look at how much of an issue implicit bias is in decisions made around expulsion and suspension.”

Figures for last year show that while black and Hispanic males account for only 37 percent of the male student population, almost 60 percent of all expulsions involve them.

Among female students, black and Hispanic girls account for 37 percent of the population, but 72.3 percent of expulsions involve them.

On the percentage of girls expelled, Wentzell said, “what’s considered assertive for a man, may be considered aggressive for a woman when you layer on top of that race, ethnicity, linguistic differences, and then you see a multiplying effect ….”

The figures also show that expulsion is far more likely to occur in the state’s poor and low-performing Alliance Districts, where 40 percent of public schools students live, but 57.5 percent of expulsions occur.

Of particular concern to state officials are the offenses for which discipline is more discretionary.

If a student is found with a dangerous weapon or with drugs with the intent to sell, it is mandatory that the district pursue expulsion. The state says that about half of all offenses resulting in expulsion involve weapons, drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

For the balance of offenses — school policy violations, physical or verbal confrontation, fighting and others — the punishment is more of a judgment call.

Statistics show that last year, comparatively few expelled students were in structured academic programs. Sixty percent were in either a “homework only” or a tutoring program.

Only 15.6 percent were in a structured alternative school program.

As part of the board’s immersion in the topic, Kermit Carolina, New Haven’s supervisor of youth development and engagement, told them of that city’s success in reducing the number of expulsions from about 140 four years ago to 17 last year with a “restorative” approach to discipline.

“I ask principals all the time: If your child acted up at home, would you send them out of your house for 180 days and say I’ll see you when you come back,” Carolina told the board of education, “and do you expect that behavior to change when they walk back in after 180 days?”

Often the language that administrators use in an expulsion proposal “can make you feel … there was a bomb about to blow up in the building,” Carolina said. “Upon research, you find that this is a student who may be a serious behavior challenge that needs more support and more energy” than an administrator is willing to give.

Often, he said there is a disconnect along racial and class lines. “It’s not just white teachers, white female teachers,” he said. “We have black administrators and Hispanic administrators who are dealing with the issue of class, that are dealing with kids of lower income background and they are not doing an effective job communicating with parents or students and that’s something that needs to be examined.”

He said he works with colleagues to find other options for these students. “I don’t want to believe that you want to see this kid hurt, but I understand you are frustrated that this kid is taking a lot of your time and energy,” Carolina said he tells his co-workers. “What kind of support can we provide to this kid?”

Now, Carolina said he gets calls from colleagues saying, “Listen I’m about to put this kid up for expulsion, what can we do? And that’s where the conversation starts.”

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