Racial disparity in school discipline in Massachusetts

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Sonia Vivas

A good student with no disciplinary record, Sonia Vivas was on track to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer when an encounter with two other teens sent her life into a tailspin. Accused of stealing a cell phone and pulling a knife on a student, the 14-year-old eighth grader was tossed out of school in 2007 with little more than a cursory hearing after the mother of one of the girls, both white, complained her daughter felt threatened.

For six months, Vivas, who denies the accusations, says she languished at home, banished from classes at her Somerville, Mass., middle school where she was the only Hispanic student in the eighth grade.

“It was pretty traumatizing,” she says today, reflecting on the incident she now believes was sparked by jealousy over her friendship with one of the girl's ex-boyfriend. “It made me feel pretty horrible. It changed my life.”

With no due process rights to a hearing under Massachusetts law, Vivas was expelled from school after only a brief interview with the school principal to explain her side of the story. Today, nearly five years later, school officials declined comment on Vivas' dismissal but said where student safety is an issue, the expulsion process remains unchanged.

It took the intervention of a lawyer and a diagnosis of a learning disorder a label that meant the state was legally required to provide alternative schooling to special needs kids  to finally get Vivas back to class, this time at an alternative school. Without a special needs designation, Vivas would have been out of options since Massachusetts does not require school districts to provide alternative education for suspended or expelled students. Even if Vivas moved out of town, her new school district would not have been required to provide her with an education. Yet today, the Somerville High School honors student is headed for a brighter future. Her dream of a legal career, however, was crushed by the hours spent fighting to get the school district to allow her to return to the classroom. Although she won that fight, the battle soured her dream of becoming a lawyer, she said.

Vivas' story is not unique.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), more than three million students are suspended or expelled annually from schools nationwide, including a disproportionate number of minorities. Many of those suspensions are for non-violent, non-criminal behavior such as swearing, talking back to a teacher, tardiness or truancy, said Barbara Best, director of foundation relations and special projects with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.. The organization documented those reasons in its “Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign,” CDF's effort to curb school suspensions.

“These cases are not jeopardizing school safety,” Best says, noting that suspending or expelling students for such minor behavioral infractions often leaves pupils so behind on their coursework that many end up dropping out of school entirely.

“We understand (school administrators) want to create a safe environment,” she says, “But we can't push students out of school for minor offenses.”

In Massachusetts, more than 190,000 school days were lost to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions during the 2009-2010 school year, a New England Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of Massachusetts school discipline reports found. That's about one school day for every five Bay State students or just over 10 percent of the 172 million school days logged annually by the state's 955,563 elementary and secondary pupils. Boston was more likely than other school systems to permanently expel students, primarily for violent drug or criminal activity, while Worcester students lost more than 5,000 days of class time more than any other school district in the state due to out-of-school suspensions, the data showed. Boston, one of the larger school systems in Massachusetts, logged only 2,765 lost days to out-of-school suspensions.

While those figures reflect a troubling trend, even more troubling is that OCR data shows that minority students are being expelled or suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. According to that 2006 federal data, the most current available figures show that black males are being expelled at six times that of white male students and at twice the rate of white male suspensions.

Smoking, vandalism, obscene language and leaving without permission got the white kids in trouble, while black students got disciplined for making noise, being disrespectful, loitering and making threats, said Isabel Raskin, an expert on zero tolerance policies with the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University in Boston.

Once removed from school, many of those youngsters fall behind in their studies, primarily because 86 percent of students involved in serious discipline cases get no educational services once tossed from the classroom, according to a 2007-2008 state study. Although Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman JC Considine said the state suggests that school districts offer some type of alternative education wherever possiblefor suspended or expelled students, education advocates say few actually do. Massachusetts law only requires the state to provide alternative education to special needs students who have been suspended or expelled.

That distinction has some in the Commonwealth worried about the state's educational priorities.

“We're creating what many people are calling 'dropout factories,'" said Nakisha Lewis, a project manager with the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a Cambridge, Mass. group that advocates for more equitable distribution of educational resources to help students achieve success. The foundation, which has released several reports on that topic, found that students who are suspended or expelled often drop out of school, leading to juvenile delinquency, arrests and eventually prison. Taking kids out of class for non-violent offenses, Lewis explained, is akin to creating what reform advocates now call “cradle-to-prison pipeline.”

“Suspending a student for more than 11 days is tantamount to expulsion,” said Michael Holzman, the research consultant who conducted the Schott Foundation study, adding that comparative studies, including one conducted by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, shows that school dropouts make less money, have a harder time finding a job and often end up in a life of poverty or in prison. At 40 percent, black men also make up most of the inmates in prison even though they are only 12 percent of the population, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.  

“It doesn't take a leap of imagination to know that if you take children with problems and throw them onto the street with little or no education, we're going to breed a society of criminals,” noted Attorney Sam Schoenfeld, with the Wallace Law Office in Canton, Mass., who has represented a number of expelled and suspended students. “What needs to be done is to stop this chain of events.”

Yet stopping student suspensions and expulsions may be difficult.

“When a child as young as four is suspended, something is wrong,” said Best, adding that the suspensions of grade schoolers should be “a wakeup call” to school administrators that  zero-tolerance discipline policies just don't work. “We don't have a child problem, we have an adult problem if we're suspending four, five and six-year-olds,” she added.

Yet, despite those numbers, the suspension and expulsion of Massachusetts' youngest students hasn't stopped. In December 2009, one year after that state discipline report was issued, an eight year-old Taunton boy was suspended from school and ordered to undergo psychological testing because his stick-figure drawing of a crucified Christ was considered too violent by school administrators, the child's father later told reporters. School officials denied that the boy's suspension had anything to do with religion and stood their ground, saying “the incident was handled appropriately.”

One year later in 2010, Brockton officials paid out nearly $250,000 in legal fees and settlement costs when the mother of a six-year-old sued after her son was suspended for the alleged sexual harassment of another first grader. Both the six-year-old and eight-year-old suspended students were minorities, according to news reports of the incidents.

By the time students reach high school, suspensions and expulsions peak, especially for minority students, like one Somali boy who was expelled from high school last year after he poked another student with a pencil, said the boy's lawyer, Thomas Mela, now the director of the Children's Law Support Project at Massachusetts Advocates for Children in Boston. Despite no prior disciplinary record, the 16-year-old was cited for using the pencil as a weapon, a charge which mandated immediate expulsion under the school's code of conduct. Only after Mela became involved in the case was the teen allowed to return to school. He remained on probation for the rest of the school year without further problems, the lawyer said.

Still, that incident remains a disturbing reflection on what is happening in classrooms throughout the Bay State where minority students, especially black and Hispanic males, are routinely tagged as troublemakers, advocates said.

“Suspensions for less serious, non-threatening behavior needs to stop,” said Raskin. “No kid should be denied an education. It doesn't make sense. There are better ways to discipline children.”

One of the reasons for such strict disciplinary measures can be traced back to April 20, 1999 when two high school seniors, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, massacred 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Denver.

“Suspension became the automatic response to misbehavior,” said Johanna Wald, who has worked on school discipline issues for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

Wald said drugs, guns and other threatened and real school shootings have created an era of “Zero-tolerance policies” in many schools.

“Now,” she added, “we are thankfully recognizing how damaging that highly punitive approach is, especially to teenagers. What they need is to be in school, to have relationships with competent adults who can steer them in the right direction.”

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, a statewide advocacy group, takes no position on school discipline issues but several Bay State teachers denied that there is a racial component to discipline and said clearly-defined progressive punishment works best for students involved in non-violent situations.

Somerville elementary teacher Jackie Lawrence, like other educators, said teachers who work with minority students “don't see children in different colors. We see students.” And, she adds, despite a child's ethnicity, all of those students are disciplined on a progressive scale with punishment increasing for each new offense. Drug, weapons or assault violations, however, are subject to the district's zero tolerance policy, said Lawrence, who teachers in the same city where Vivas once attended school.

“A zero tolerance policy shows students and their families that there is no wiggle room for extreme behaviors,” said Lawrence, noting the need for a stricter approach when it concerns issues that threaten school safety.

Yet despite similar progressive discipline policies in other Bay State schools, the swift suspension or expulsion of students, often for minor infractions, continues unabated even though studies show that tossing a kid out of school encourages a child to drop out altogether, child advocates say.

Still, advocates and educators remain optimistic.

“Our concern is to change the process and the practices for those kids who don't commit serious offenses,said Mela, who is now spearheading two bills he hopes will reform discipline policies in Bay State schools and keep kids in class.

Sonia Chang-Diaz, Senate co-chair of the state's Joint Committee on Education, said the bills, which are aimed at preventing kids from dropping out of school, encourage school districts to reduce their reliance on expulsion and suspension as disciplinary tactics and puts some due process rights in place for students charged with misdemeanors.

It also mandates that no student be expelled for more than a year and gives teachers and administrators discretion in how they deal with unruly students. Current zero-tolerance policies, which are instituted by individual school districts based on established district-wide policy, do not require school administrators to ratchet up punishment based on the severity of an offense. This all-or-nothing approach needs to change, Chang-Diaz said.

“We need to get students back into the educational process. And we need to allow school administrators the flexibility and the authority to make decisions protecting the safety of students and staff,” she noted.

Roy Karp, chairman of the Boston Public School's Code of Conduct Advisory Council and   executive director of the Civic Ed Project which fosters civic engagement in schools, said new approaches to discipline are changing the way students and administrators deal with problematic school issues.

At Curley Middle School in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, a restorative justice program, which makes kids responsible for their behavior and encourages them to peacefully solve problems, has brought a culture of respect to what was once a problem school, Karp noted.

“Suspension gives students a chance to do what they want,” he said of the free time given to  students who are no longer required to attend classes. “Restorative discipline holds students to a much higher standard. We get them to think of how they harmed others. After all, it's hard to look someone in the eye and hear them say, 'I was afraid to come to school because of you.'”

Paul Andrews, director of professional development and government services for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he supports school discipline policies but they need to be consistent, fair, and progressive so that punishment increases in severity with each new occurrence. School administrators also need to be able to use their own discretion to better resolve issues, he said, adding that parental involvement and support is also key.

“It requires the cooperation of local government, families and schools,he said. We all have to work together. We all have a responsibility to make this work.”

Otherwise, the trend in school dropout rates may mean even bigger issues in the future.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and a member of the Investigative News Network.