LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Karen Williams, a retired Jefferson County Public Schools teacher and co-president of a local advocacy group, said she knows firsthand how suspensions can impact a student’s life.

Her great-nephew, now in his early 20s, is still working toward his GED after dropping out at JCPS after suspensions led to his eventual placement in an alternative school.

“They’re not in the classroom, and they’re not getting the structure,” Williams said in a recent interview before a meeting of the Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. “Basically they need that structure of the classroom setting, and that keeps them … on a line to graduation.”

Others who are kicked out of school even for brief periods can face even more daunting life challenges. Students who are suspended may not graduate and enter “a culture that would produce arrest, conviction and prison,” said Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP.

“If your students are spending more time in suspension, they’re not learning. They’re not progressing,” he said. “I think we all should recognize the importance of students leaving JCPS ready to either go into the workforce or higher education, and in some cases they will be going into parenthood, so we need a school system that produces graduates ready to go into society.”

Suspensions at JCPS have increased in recent years, disproportionately affecting black students in the district. Officials say they’re optimistic that new initiatives passed by the Jefferson County Board of Education will help reduce the number of disciplinary issues at schools, particularly those affecting minorities.

Out-of-school suspensions at JCPS rose by double-digit percentages from the 2013-14 school year to 2016-17.

This year’s 20,121 out-of-school suspensions, as of April 26, aren’t far from 2016-17’s 21,822 total, itself a 67 percent increase from 2013-14’s 13,068 total, according to data provided by the school district. However, the average suspension length has dropped in each year, from 3.2 days in the 2013-14 school year to 2.3 days so far this year.

The data also demonstrate another trend that isn’t unique to JCPS but still troubles those inside and outside of the district: Although about a third of the district’s overall student population are black, they make up more than two-thirds of out-of-school suspensions.

It’s an issue that has been brought to the district’s attention in the past.

The Kentucky Advisory Commission to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights issued a report in June 2011 that found black students made up 36 percent of JCPS’s student population and 63 percent of the district’s out-of-school suspension totals during the 2008-09 school year. The report noted similar trends at school districts in Charlotte, N.C.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Jacksonville, Fla.

JCPS has taken steps recently to address disproportionality in its student discipline. The Jefferson County Board of Education passed a racial equity policy at its May 8 meeting, and 19 schools in the district have implemented restorative practice plans to foster better relationships between school staff and students.

“The unfortunate reality is that JCPS is right in line with national averages on disproportionate outcomes between races,” Chris Kolb, a school board member who helped draft the board’s racial equity policy, told WDRB News.

“But just because it’s typical of school districts all over the country does not by any means mean that it’s acceptable. It’s a real challenge that not a lot of school districts have taken incredibly seriously, and I’m proud that we’ve taken the first step to do that, but this is really just the beginning of doing the actual work.”

Katy Deferrari, assistant superintendent for school climate and culture, said the increase in suspensions at JCPS can be traced back to increasing violence in the Louisville community. She says  the school district is placing a greater emphasis on how to help kids who live through traumatic experiences in their homes and families.

“We have students that, again, are exposed to the large increase in homicides that we see in Louisville and also domestic violence cases,” she said, noting her concern that more young students are exposed to violence and acting out. “Those are up as well, and so we’ve really been trying to partner with our juvenile justice folks, law enforcement to try to also keep an idea of what the trend in Louisville is looking like.

“Unfortunately for us, that does play a major part in the level of trauma that kids are bringing to school. We’ve seen a major increase in the need for mental health support services for our kids.”

Reducing disproportionality

While black students have made up the majority of out-of-school suspensions at JCPS, growth rates over the years have generally followed overall increases in suspensions.

For instance, the largest statistical jump in recent years was between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, when out-of-school suspensions increased from 14,881 to 19,532, according to data provided by the district.

That was a 31.3 percent increase overall. Out-of-school suspensions went up 31.6 percent in those years for black students and 25.2 percent for white students. Larger jumps were seen in other racial categories like students of mixed race, 47.4 percent, and those of Hispanic descent, 52.4 percent, in those years.

Still, disproportionality isn’t strictly a JCPS issue. The Government Accountability Office examined national civil rights data from the 2013-14 school year and found black students are persistently overrepresented in school disciplinary cases.

Black students made up 15.5 percent of school enrollment that year and 38.7 percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to the GAO report released in March. White students, by contrast, made up 50.3 percent of enrollment but 32.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions, the report says.

Jacqueline Nowicki, the author of the GAO report and the organization’s director of K-12 education policy, said the issue of “who gets disciplined and why is obviously pretty complex.”

“There is research that sheds light on a variety of factors that contribute, which include things like stereotypes or unconscious bias that can cause some teachers to judge student behavior differently, maybe based on the student’s race or gender,” Nowicki said.

Deferrari says the district hopes to stamp out those sorts of biases and improve disparities through its new racial equity policy, expansion of restorative practices and positive interventions at schools, and central office restructuring.

Those will allow the Diversity, Equity and Poverty Programs Division to offer more training and support for JCPS staff and result in more refined plans for individual schools to address racial disproportionalities.

Cunningham said such training will improve interactions between teachers and students.

Everything that affects children’s lives outside of school also impacts their behavior in the classroom, he said.

“If a student comes in a classroom who may be hungry and if the teacher is not prepared to deal with that type of situation, it can escalate and cause suspension,” Cunningham said. “… Hunger and home situations will produce different behavior in a classroom.”

Success takes many forms

The measures of success in addressing racial suspension disparities vary among those interviewed by WDRB News, although all said they hope to see gains in academic achievement throughout JCPS.

An overall drop in suspensions and days out of school for students are among benchmarks cited by Kolb and Cunningham.

“We definitely have to see reductions in the number of days missed due to suspensions,” Kolb said. “… Losing any learning time is really challenging for students, especially those that already have some significant challenges.”

“You would have to look at suspensions, the elimination of achievement gaps, graduation rates, diversity among staff, especially teachers,” Cunningham said. “There is no question that across the nation there is a shortage of Black teachers. That’s a nationwide problem.”

Williams and Kolb say they’ve been encouraged by disciplinary data from JCPS schools that have implemented restorative practices, which generally look to identify behavioral issues as they come up and address the root causes in dialogues with students in a process that includes those harmed by the actions.

Out-of-school suspensions at Waggener High School, for example, are down 36.7 percent so far this year.

Williams said she would like to see the number of schools using such tools expanded throughout the district.

“What we’re doing is not working,” she said. “That’s why we’ve been working on this for eight years to get this implementation started.”

For Deferrari, success entails a better performing student body that feels deeper connections to their schools and teachers, as well as a district that provides equal access to resources and opportunities for every child at JCPS.

“Dr. (Marty) Pollio and the rest of us are really trying to shine a big light on personalizing learning for kids and making sure that at every level and major milestone that those kids are ready for transition and to move on,” she said. “… I think that as we start to see that work be successful, we will also see less disruption in classrooms.”

Deferrari, a former teacher, assistant principal and principal, said for the first time since taking her new role at the district, “we are appropriately scaled to try to make a dent in the need.”

“I think with the racial equity policy we also have the platform to really help create and operationalize that,” she said.

Suspensions during the 2017-18 school year (as of April 26)

Marion C. Moore School 745 (1,836 days)
Iroquois High 740 (2,384 days)
Stuart Academy 715 (1,552 days)
Jeffersontown High 664 (1,370 days)
The Academy @ Shawnee 650 (1,383 days)
Seneca High 647 (1,666 days)
Doss High 622 (1,819 days)
Southern High 600 (1,168 days)
Kammerer Middle 540 (1,117 days)
Valley High 537 (1,249 days)
Fern Creek High 507 (1,210 days)
Western High 487 (1,559 days)
Eastern High 457 (1,197 days)
Minor Daniels Academy 454 (1,343 days)
Newburg Middle 447 (799 days)
Westport Middle 443 (1,019 days)
Highland Middle 438 (1,020 days)
Farnsley Middle 434 (709 days)
Frederick Law Olmsted Academy North 432 (807 days)
Thomas Jefferson Middle 420 (1,333 days)
Pleasure Ridge Park High 387 (1,204 days)
Breckinridge Metropolitan High 360 (793 days)
Waggener High 359 (1,008 days)
Ballard High 331 (1,123 days)
Crosby Middle 323 (845 days)
Ramsey Middle 320 (582 days)
Noe Middle 319 (882 days)
Conway Middle 300 (678 days)
Byck Elementary 290 (420 days)
Robert Frost Sixth-Grade Academy 277 (635 days)
Fairdale High 266 (623 days)
Meyzeek Middle 258 (549 days)
Lassiter Middle 241 (769 days)
Atherton High 217 (462 days)
Frederick Law Olmsted Academy South 193 (516 days)
Roosevelt-Perry Elementary 176 (242 days)
Johnson Traditional Middle 175 (336 days)
Carrithers Middle 174 (390 days)
Wheatley Elementary 155 (269 days)
Liberty High 150 (321 days)
Cane Run Elementary 143 (218 days)
Minors Lane Elementary 132 (272 days)
Young Elementary 132 (222 days)
Jacob Elementary 129 (296 days)
McFerran Preparatory Academy 127 (231 days)
Kennedy Montessori Elementary 119 (277 days)
Maupin Elementary 118 (261 days)
Zachary Taylor Elementary 107 (191 days)
Butler Traditional High 106 (334 days)
The Phoenix School Of Discovery 103 (208 days)
Louisville Male High 102 (414 days)
Waller-Williams Environmental 100 (119 days)
Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary 99 (144 days)
Kerrick Elementary 96 (168 days)
Knight Middle 96 (143 days)
Dixie Elementary 91 (125 days)
ESL Newcomer Academy 89 (129 days)
Semple Elementary 76 (158 days)
Central High Magnet Career Academy 68 (218 days)
Cochran Elementary 65 (101 days)
Atkinson Academy 60 (113 days)
Gilmore Lane Elementary 60 (80 days)
Blake Elementary 56 (77 days)
Frayser Elementary 54 (60 days)
Watson Lane Elementary 54 (125 days)
Shacklette Elementary 52 (63 days)
King Elementary 51 (110 days)
Shelby Traditional Academy 49 (70 days)
Portland Elementary 48 (81 days)
Engelhard Elementary 46 (77 days)
Smyrna Elementary 46 (70 days)
Western Middle School for the Arts 44 (136 days)
Foster Traditional Academy 43 (74 days)
Jefferson County Traditional Middle 42 (73 days)
Greenwood Elementary 41 (83 days)
St Matthews Elementary 41 (56 days)
Wellington Elementary 41 (95 days)
Price Elementary 40 (52 days)
Coleridge-Taylor Montessori Elementary 39 (94 days)
Indian Trail Elementary 34 (55 days)
Layne Elementary 33 (49 days)
Luhr Elementary 33 (60 days)
Field Elementary 31 (46 days)
Wilder Elementary 31 (52 days)
Cochrane Elementary 27 (33 days)
Medora Elementary 27 (37 days)
Middletown Elementary 26 (29 days)
Watterson Elementary 26 (33 days)
Dunn Elementary 24 (30 days)
Dupont Manual High 24 (66 days)
Kenwood Elementary 24 (62 days)
Gutermuth Elementary 23 (31 days)
Hawthorne Elementary 23 (34 days)
Bates Elementary 22 (25 days)
Goldsmith Elementary 20 (43 days)
Wilkerson Traditional Elementary 20 (38 days)
Slaughter Elementary 19 (25 days)
Barret Traditional Middle 18 (48 days)
Crums Lane Elementary 18 (48 days)
Home Of The Innocents School 18 (27 days)
Eisenhower Elementary 17 (40 days)
Johnsontown Road Elementary 17 (19 days)
Carter Traditional Elementary 16 (28 days)
Tully Elementary 16 (23 days)
Camp Taylor Elementary 14 (25 days)
Mary Ryan Academy 13 (14 days)
Bloom Elementary 12 (25 days)
Binet School 11 (14 days)
Hazelwood Elementary 11 (16 days)
Wilt Elementary 11 (22 days)
Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts 10 (15 days)
Rangeland Elementary 10 (20 days)
Auburndale Elementary 9 (17 days)
Fairdale Elementary 9 (9 days)
Louisville Day 9 (22 days)
Chancey Elementary 8 (16 days)
Fern Creek Elementary 8 (19 days)
George Unseld Early Childhood Center 8 (15 days)
Trunnell Elementary 8 (11 days)
Blue Lick Elementary 7 (7 days)
Brandeis Elementary 7 (12 days)
Chenoweth Elementary 7 (7 days)
Klondike Lane Elementary 7 (11 days)
Mill Creek Elementary 7 (37 days)
Jeffersontown Elementary 6 (16 days)
Lowe Elementary 6 (15 days)
Westport TAPP 6 (17 days)
Wheeler Elementary 6 (14 days)
Bowen Elementary 5 (6 days)
Dawson Orman Education Center 5 (12 days)
Duvalle Education Center 5 (8 days)
Farmer Elementary 5 (7 days)
Audubon Traditional Elementary 4 (4 days)
Coral Ridge Elementary 4 (5 days)
Laukhuf Elementary 4 (8 days)
Norton Elementary 4 (4 days)
Okolona Elementary 4 (4 days)
Sanders Elementary 4 (4 days)
Stonestreet Elementary 4 (4 days)
Hartstern Elementary 3 (4 days)
Hite Elementary 3 (3 days)
J. Graham Brown School 3 (5 days)
Jefferson County High 3 (10 days)
Norton Commons Elementary School 3 (3 days)
Rutherford Elementary 2 (4 days)
Schaffner Traditional Elementary 2 (3 days)
South Park TAPP 1 (2 days)
Stopher Elementary 1 (1 day)

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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