Out-of-school suspension numbers down 26 percent

Sunday, January 19, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:05 p.m. CST, Monday, January 20, 2014

COLUMBIA — Out-of-school suspensions are down 26 percent so far this school year in Columbia Public Schools, according to a report delivered to the Columbia School Board on Jan. 13.

Between August and December 2013, district students served 887 out-of-school suspensions compared to 1,204 in the same time period in 2012.

Safe Schools Act violations, such as bringing a weapon or drugs to school, would result in an out-of-school suspension, Carla London, student and family advocacy supervisor, said. In-school suspensions are used for lesser offenses such as fighting and are imposed at a school's discretion.

London attributed a large part of the reduction in out-of-school suspensions to the district's increased use of its Alternative Center for Education, located inside The Boys and Girls Club of Columbia. Instead of spending the day at home for their suspension, a student spends the day at the the club. A typical day at the center includes work on regular academic assignments as well as a required group counseling session.

The district's discipline approach also has shifted its focus away from punishment and instead tries to emphasize appropriate consequences that equip students with tools to overcome situational factors that could lead to trouble and "see the picture all the way through to the end," London said.

Students who serve out-of-school suspensions miss out on lessons and school work, causing them to be behind when they return and more likely to once again become a disciplinary problem, London said.

The number of students who commit repeat offenses after going through the Alternative Center for Education is low, London said. So far this year, only two students have had to return. No students have been more than twice.

London has seen academic improvement in students who have been through the alternative center, too. These students can get caught up on their work, so returning to the classroom requires less of a transition than if they had spent their suspension at home, London said.

Although out-of-school suspensions are down for both white and black students, black students still serve a disproportionate number of suspensions; 55 percent of the year's suspensions were served by black students, who represent 20 percent of the student population. Of the 887 out-of-school suspensions this year, 488 involved black students.

School board member Jim Whitt would like to see the numbers become more proportional, though the district has been making some progress, he said.

The numbers also show that suspensions are more common among students who receive free or discount lunches. Of the 887 out-of-school suspensions in 2013-14, 678, or 76 percent, fell into that category.

Students who live in poverty bring additional stresses, such as hunger and lack of sleep, to school with them, London said. While some students might have traveled around the world, others might have never left their neighborhood, she said.

"I think our opportunity gap is sizable," she said.

The district very closely monitors how it addresses students to make sure that it meets the specific needs of each student, she said. Administrators, building principals and assistant principals are participating in equity training through the National Conference for Community Justice in St. Louis.

School leaders also work hard to create a welcoming atmosphere for students, regardless of their background. "People don't hurt a community they feel a part of," London said.

Equity training will help improve relationships between teachers and students of color by helping teachers be more aware of privileges that not all students share, Whitt said.

Building better relationships with parents also will help reduce discipline issues, he said.

London said she hopes the district's efforts will change the culture surrounding misbehavior and discipline in schools.

"I think we have positive things coming."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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