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Racial Disparities Persist In Suspensions Of Elementary Students In Kansas City

City of Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department
Black students account for about 40 percent of PK-8 enrollment in Kansas City but receive three quarters of the suspensions.

Young black students were five times more likely than their white peers to be removed from Kansas City classrooms for disciplinary infractions during the 2015-16 school year.

They received longer suspensions than their white and Hispanic classmates and were more likely to be put out of school for reasons other than illegal substances, physical violence and weapons, according to a Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department analysis.

Credit City of Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department
Black elementary students received longer suspensions than their white and Hispanic classmates.

The analysis included all 40,090 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at public schools in Kansas City in 2015-16, the most recent year data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was available.

On Wednesday, Mayor Sly James convened a school suspension summit to discuss the findings with local school districts. Previous education summits have tackled issues such as mobility and attendance.

“We work very hard on third grade reading proficiency because we understand the connection between third grade reading proficiency and further academic success,” James says. “Kids can’t learn to read if they’re not in school.”

In 2015, Missouri led the nation in the suspension of black elementary school students, an unfortunate distinction that’s made a lot of metro-area districts rethink their discipline policies. Earlier this summer, KCUR reported that Kansas City Public Schools reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions by 31 percent in two years.

So why does the health department’s analysis of suspension data show the incident rate going up, not down?

It may seem counterintuitive, but districts that take a trauma-sensitive approach to discipline often end up issuing more in-school suspensions, which the health department’s analysis doesn’t separate out.

“If a high school student is taking seven classes, and they had a problem in one of those seven classes, it doesn’t make sense to me to suspend a kid for an entire day,” says KCPS Supt. Mark Bedell. “You not only punish the kid, but you punish those teachers that are responsible for their learning.”

But in-school suspensions are also up for elementary students, by about 40 percent.

And racial disparities persist.

Schools have to say why students are being put out of class – alcohol, tobacco, drugs, violence, weapon or “other,” a broad category that ends up encompassing all sorts of disciplinary infractions. It’s the most common reason why students of all races are suspended.

Credit City of Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education compiles data on why students are suspended.

But the frequency with which “other” is given as the reason for suspending black students is troubling, especially taking into account that they were less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to be cited for violence.

“I don’t want to make this all about black kids and trauma, but it’s become all too apparent recently that there’s still racial bias in this country,” James says.

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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