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KICKED OUT: PPS' rate of explusions, suspensions higher for blacks, Natives

Part One of Two: The Problems

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sheila Warren, founder of the Portland Parent Union, talks about her efforts to build relationships and change outcomes for minority families in Portland Public Schools. 'Most of the time black kids aren't threatening anybody - that's a myth right there,' Warren said.

Sheila Warren doesn’t make definitive plans.

As soon as she founded Portland Parent Union in 2009, Warren suddenly started getting calls from parents all over the city frantic that their children were being suspended or expelled. They want her help or advice, but she does them one better.

“I drop everything and just go,” Warren said. The long-time activist has sat in on dozens of disciplinary hearings and Individualized Education Plan meetings as an advocate.

Over two decades advocating for her granddaughter and others in the African American and special education communities, Warren has made a lot of enemies with her straight-forward personality. But she also is beginning to make inroads in Portland Public Schools policies. Thanks in part to her advocacy, administrators are seeking to rewrite the disciplinary handbook; PPS is spending $700,000 on restorative justice and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports; and the Office of Equity and Partnerships is working on recommendations for the superintendent that would place a moratorium on suspensions for insubordination and absenteeism, as well as more clearly define the offenses that could lead to suspensions and expulsions.

But Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, believes that in the last two years administrators have only mandated reductions in discipline numbers without genuine engagement with teachers and investment in resources.

"It's systemic," Sullivan said. "They had to have said something to the principals."

The clock is ticking as a new cohort of students enters PPS' racial divide each year.

A black or Native American student is four times more likely than a white student to be suspended or expelled from Portland Public Schools. The racial disparity starts as young as kindergarten and accelerates in fourth grade, peaking in the middle grade years.

“For me, it’s an important thing to recognize that these are children we are talking about,” said PPS board member Matt Morton, who is executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA). “It’s ridiculous.”

Suspended students more likely to drop out

While PPS has reduced the number of what are called exclusions — suspensions or expulsions — in its schools by half since 2007, the ratios between races have remained pretty much unchanged.

“We are moving forward,” said Lolenzo Poe, the man charged with turning these numbers around for the last three years. “We just have to accelerate.”

As PPS’ Chief Equity and Diversity Officer and Partnership Director, Poe works with Superintendent Carole Smith on setting goals to not only reduce exclusions by half but reduce the gap between races by half, too. Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Lolenzo Poe, Portland Public Schools' chief equity and diversity officer and partnership director, gives a presentation on discipline disparity to the school board, Feb. 10. Despite the number of suspensions and expulsions across the district being cut in half since 2007, black and Native American students are still far more likely to be disciplined in this way than their peers, which can have dramatic long-term consequences.

His department’s research shows that to be a worthwhile effort.

Each exclusion puts a child further behind on the material and creates a rift between the family and the school. Of children who have been kicked out of school more than five times in their career, only 20 percent end up graduating high school.

Poe says he wants to turn these trends around by investing in programs like restorative justice, Collaborative Action for Research and Education, and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

“How do we improve the way we’re teaching and have all of our students be successful?” Poe said.

Teachers, students in danger

Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said for all the talk of alternative strategies, administrators have so far only mandated a reduction in exclusions — with dire safety consequences.

“It’s serious stuff,” Sullivan said, relating stories of teachers who endure threats of violence and death or break up physical fights, only to have the students show up back in class with no consequences.

“We’ve heard in close to every single building that there are huge issues with them not following through on the PPS discipline handbook,” Sullivan said.

In the last two years, she says she has received a dramatic increase in the number of complaints from her member teachers about discipline issues.

“The district isn’t engaging us on what would be a better way,” Sullivan said. “The district doesn’t. They’re not providing any solutions. That’s putting all our kids in jeopardy.”

Sullivan said she supports the work of Warren’s Portland Parents Union and agrees that a program like restorative justice could help.

By the district setting a goal of reducing exclusions without first putting significant funding towards alternatives, such as counselors or behavioral programs, she says teachers and students are caught in a violent cycle.

“You’re saying it’s OK,” she said. “You’re really reemphasizing that this behavior is acceptable. ... It shows the rest of the class that they can behave that way. ”

A long history of culture barriers

PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles argued the effort to tamp down on exclusions doesn’t mean kids are getting a pass.

“I think a lot of people are used to the old school of discipline — anything other than suspending them or expelling them isn’t discipline,” Miles said. “And we’re saying no, it is. But we’re doing it a different way.”

Poe said there are cultural barriers and biases for teachers to overcome. Some teachers can feel more threatened by behavior from a black student than by the same behavior from a white student. In addition, the way teachers talk to parents about their child can alienate them. For example, if a teacher offers mental health services for a struggling child, a black parent is more likely to feel judged.

“Now the parent thinks: ‘You’re saying my child is crazy,’” Poe said.

He added that because of the long history of uneven exclusions, it will take time and effort for many families to trust the schools again.

“That is a traumatic experience for families, so how do we heal that?”

But the most important reason to look for alternatives, Poe says, is to reach successful outcomes for students, teachers and parents alike.

“Kids being sent home; we know that doesn’t work.”

How can teachers enforce discipline when their tools are being taken away? On Thursday, read Part Two in our series for solutions that PPS can, and has already, put into place.

Watch the full PPS presentation on discipline disparity at the Feb. 10 board meeting.

By Shasta Kearns Moore
email: shasta@portlandtribune.com
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