12 Michigan school districts over-suspend minority students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Twelve Michigan school districts have been cited by the state of Michigan for disciplining black or Hispanic special education students at a rate at least three times higher than other groups.

The districts are included on the Michigan Department of Education’s annual list called “Significant Disproportionality,” which identifies school districts — based on suspension and expulsion data — that are disciplining a subgroup of special education students three times more than they statistically should be based on their portion of the student population, said Teri Chapman, director of the MDE’s Office of Special Education.

More: Mich. schools move to reduce suspensions, expulsions

As school districts across Michigan move away from a policy of mandatory expulsions for discipline, state education officials are evaluating districts on whether local discipline decisions apply fairly to all student populations in special education. The state is now requiring districts to consider use of “restorative practices” to deal with disputes instead of zero-tolerance suspensions and expulsions.

The state tells districts that as part of its monitoring of students with disabilities, it expects “the percentage of suspensions by ethnicity would match the percentage of each ethnicity within the population.” There is no penalty for being on the annual state list.

“The reason this is such an import issue is suspension is so detrimental to kids,” Chapman said. “When we look at data and see a disproportional impact, that warrants questions. They have to be able to look at the data and say, ‘Is this in all your buildings or is it a certain teacher?”

Of the 12 districts on the list for 2017, 10 are cited for suspending black students disproportionally.

They are Chippewa Valley Schools, Dearborn City Schools, Grosse Pointe Public Schools, Troy School District, Airport Community Schools, Ann Arbor Public Schools, Berrien Springs Public Schools, Forest Hills Public Schools, Kelloggsville Public Schools and Northwest Community Schools.

Harper Creek Community Schools was cited for its data on disciplining Hispanic students while Mount Clemens Community School District was cited for its rate of disciplining students of two or more races.

The Farmington Public School District was on the list from 2013-16 for its rates on suspending black special education students. School officials said they were removed from the list in May after reducing the number of suspensions by using a restorative practices approach that allows students to talk issues through in a peaceful setting when appropriate.

The 2017 list is based on discipline data for special education students from the 2015-16 school year.

Suspension and expulsion rates for special education students are reported to the state by districts but the data is not published to protect the privacy of students, state officials said.

To get placed on the list, the state uses a complex formula that considers in-school and out-of-school suspensions, gives weighted rank to suspensions and compares data with population figures by race and ethnicity.

If white students make up the majority of the student population and the special education population, the discipline rates of white students should be higher, state officials say.

“This is an issue of really understanding what are adults’ thoughts around race and bias and how it is impacting their decisions and if they might be aware of it,” Chapman said. “A lot of teachers when they see data they are surprised. They see they are kicking black kids out more than other kids.”

Grosse Pointe Public Schools superintendent Gary Neihaus said his district is monitoring discipline records through its office of special education and is holding semi-annual reviews with middle and high school principals to examine what suspensions are for and what behaviors are happening in each building.

“We have seen a decline in number of referrals for suspensions and expulsions over the last five years. We are looking at consistency and policy across our five secondary schools,” Neihaus said.

The district is discussing restorative practices techniques and alternatives to suspension and obtained a three-year grant to fund Positive Behavior Intervention Systems that allows school officials to talk to students about behavior expectations.

The district has also set up monthly meetings with a diverse group of parents and to talk through some of the issues, he said.

Once the state cites a district, it’s required to allocate 15 percent of its special education funds to early intervention services. It also must review and revise policies, practices and procedures on discipline and publicly report them.

In the Mount Clemens Community School District, which was placed on the list for the first time this year, school officials are working on a new program with elementary students, Superintendent Teresa Davis said. It works with students in a small group setting to nurture social and emotional awareness skills and is led by a behavior interventionist.

“The state requires us ... to work on good behavior with the elementary students before they go to middle school. For 30 minutes, they talk about behaviors and appropriate ways to respond when they are upset and there is an issue,” Davis said.

The Troy School District was placed on the list for the first time in 2017 for disproportionally disciplining black special education students.

District spokeswoman Kerry Birmingham said the district is taking its placement on the list seriously, and has a plan in place.

“There is an element of surprise. We work hard to build a community based on inclusiveness and respect for all,” she said.

The district hired two social-emotional learning specialists at the high school to work with at-risk students to try and look at practices and systems of support for those students.

It also sent its administrators to training for restorative practices techniques and is looking at its code of conduct, Birmingham said.

“It’s concerning to us when we look at data and see disproportion issues in any groups. Are there things in our conduct that cause that? The group will make changes,” she said.