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Kansas City Public Schools Says It Is 'Transforming The Way We Do Discipline' With New Policy

Students in Felicia Bowles' third grade class at Pitcher Elementary work on an assignment on March 6, 2020, the week before schools closed due to the pandemic. Even when teachers are vaccinated, students will be expected to wear masks and practice social distancing because there's no vaccine for kids yet.
Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Students in Felicia Bowles' third grade class at Pitcher Elementary work on an assignment. A new policy at Kansas City Public Schools would aim to keep younger students in the classroom by limiting out-of-school suspensions.

African American students in Missouri are reportedly more than four times as likely to be suspended as their white peers. A new KCPS policy addresses the disturbing trend.

Kansas City Public Schools will introduce a new code of conduct to limit suspensions, aiming to keep younger students in the classroom unless the circumstances are extreme. The school board approved the policy change Wednesday

Lateshia Woodley, executive director of student support at KCPS, said the move follows a year-long effort to make the code of conduct's language more equitable and less traumatic.

“Wednesday marked a moment in Kansas City Public Schools' history that I believe is going to have dividends for decades to come and the way we are transforming the way we do discipline in the school district,” Woodley said.

Under the new policy, students in pre-K through fifth grade will no longer face suspensions except when students cause harm to themselves or others, or violate the law.

Woodley said the district will now implement intervention and support for students, hoping to preempt the need for discipline.

This includes trauma-informed training for teachers to help them identify issues and concerns with students and how to de-escalate situations.

Woodley said support will also include teaching students replacement behaviors.

“Of course, we can’t educate kids if they're not in class, but also being able to equip kids with the knowledge and understanding of how their behaviors affect the learning environment, and what they need to do differently in order to change that negative outcome,” Woodley said.

Other interventions include a “recovery room” where students will be able to step away from conflict and work on how to reenter the classroom.

Suspended students and their families will also be required to attend a “reintegration meeting” to receive guidance for returning to school.

Calls for change

More2, a Kansas City-based social justice organization, has been pushing the district to change its policy on suspensions since 2019.

Ron Carter, co-chair of More2's education task force, said removing children from their learning environment can be harmful and that suspensions are often administered disproportionately against children of color.

“Discipline of that nature never leads to a change in behavior. And especially with younger kids, you can teach them the appropriate behavior, if you just take the time to do it,” Carter said.

According to a ProPublica report, Black students in Missouri are 4.4 times more likely to be suspended in comparison to their white peers. The same study found that Black students at KCPS were 1.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

Woodley said the new suspension policy is a part of the district’s work to address this disparity which also includes system-wide equity audits.

The district’s dress code was also changed in an effort to remove “oppressive” language.

The update states that students will not be discriminated against based on their gender expression through the way they dress and prohibits out-of-school suspensions for dress code non-compliance. The code also removes a ban on hats and hooded sweatshirts.

Woodley said the district wanted to make sure there isn't language in its code of conduct that targeted students based on race or gender.

“The big conversation was, how does this affect learning? Does wearing a hoodie really impact students’ ability to learn?” Woodley said. “And so we wanted to make sure that we removed things that really didn't have a negative effect on the classroom environment.”

Learner's bill of rights

The new code of conduct also includes a learner’s bill of rights that Woodley said is meant to empower students.

Woodley said many of the district’s students are impacted by the city’s rising violent crime rate and bring that grief and trauma with them into the classroom.

“We wanted them to know that... you have a right, if there's something that you feel that you're not being treated fairly, that you have a right to advocate for yourself,” Woodley said. “And educators will listen and will respond accordingly to make sure that you feel supported in this work”

The new code of conduct is just the starting point of the district’s mission to become more equitable and trauma-informed, said Woodley.

Woodley said the real work will begin as they start training staff to implement the new policies for the 2021-2022 school year.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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