Columbia, Boone County officials discuss racial discrepancies in student discipline

Monday, July 28, 2014 | 8:10 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — At Monday's quarterly breakfast gathering, Columbia and Boone County officials discussed racial discrepancies in referring students to the juvenile justice system.

Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson of the Boone County Commission said that Boone County was ranked worst in Missouri for inequality in referring minority students to juvenile justice authorities in a recent report by the Office of State Courts Administrator. The report was compiled by Bradley Wing, who culled data from sources including law enforcement agencies and school resource officers, Thompson said.

"We have people that think juvenile records go away, but they don't," Thompson said. During her time as an assistant public defender in Missouri, she said, every one of her minority clients had a juvenile record.

"Boone County is stunningly one of the leaders for disproportionate minority contacts," Thompson said. "It's going to take all of us to overcome that problem."

Thompson recommended using social service agencies as a point of first contact, instead of going directly to judicial authorities. She said that potential service providers spanned public institutions like MU and private organizations including Burrell Behavioral Health.

"Instead of defaulting to the judicial system, we need to figure out the best approach for these kids," Thompson said.

Thompson said that poverty and education are pieces of a "toxic" environment for minority students. She said that learning disabilities, poor nutrition and unstable homes can contribute to students entering the system on minor transgressions.

Relatively harmless incidents could be blown out of proportion, Thompson said, and a brief hallway encounter could become a "tick on a record."

To demonstrate what could be called a third-degree assault, Thompson walked past Helen Wade, chairwoman of the Columbia Public Schools policy committee, and brushed shoulders with her.

Of the 165 juvenile assault referrals in Boone County in 2013, 102 were charged to black youth.

"One would expect blacks to make up 16 percent of the 'assault' offenses instead of 62 percent," according to the OSCA report.

Wade said that better communication among organizations such as the Columbia Police Department, Columbia Public Schools and the Boone County Sheriff's Department was needed. She said the focus should be on preventing incidents.

"We've been able to pinpoint where these referrals are occurring," Wade said. "Our system promotes the back end. We're trying to figure out a way to make those resources available at the front end."

Thompson said that schools were one of the largest sources of referrals to the legal system, and that black students were more likely than white students to be referred. More referrals lead to more school suspensions, Thompson said.

"A year ago if you were a black male, you were nine times more likely to be suspended than any other racial group," Columbia Public Schools superintendent Peter Stiepleman said. "That figure was cut in half by many aggressive means."

He said that one step to address racial discrepancies is "equity training" for faculty and staff members provided by the National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis. Training will be provided to principals first and will then be expanded to the entire staff, he said.

"We have absolutely changed how we're going to have an alternative if you get suspended," Stiepleman said. He said that suspended students could continue their schoolwork by using the district's Alternative Continuing Education program.

Stiepleman said that graduation rates in Columbia's high schools rose to 90 percent from 85 percent in the last year. Among black students, he said, the graduation rate went from 73 percent to 81 percent, and Douglass High School had 92 graduates in 2014, up from 27 in 2013.

"Our leaders and our teachers are making a difference," Stiepleman said.

Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.

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