Closely scrutinizing out-of-school suspensions involving African American students could help bringing down suspensions for all student groups, Albemarle County Superintendent Matt Haas said in an interview this week.
Reviewing suspensions for a specific group of students is a new step for the division as it looks to reduce the times students are removed from school; this school year, principals are required to call Haas or his designee before deciding whether to suspend an African American student out of school.
So far, division leadership have reviewed three cases, and suspensions for the first quarter are down compared to last year.
“Last year, there were 140 some students suspended, and in the first quarter it’s down to 111,” Haas said. “And we only imposed this change in the last two weeks of the first quarter, which tells me that principals were already making some headway.”
Haas said he decided to focus on African American students because, according to the school’s 2018 Equity Report, that group of students experiences the most disparate impact in terms of race and ethnicity. The change was announced in a School Board meeting last month.
Haas said he has concerns about in-school suspensions and other times students are removed from the classroom because of their behavior. However, the priority now is out-of-school suspensions.
“That’s the key,” Haas said. “I just don’t want the students, if we can avoid it, to be out from school.”
Last school year, 455 students were suspended out-of-school 690 times, according to the annual State of the Division report. That accounts for less than 4% of Albemarle County students.
Black students made 27% of those suspended out-of-school last school year despite making up 11% of the division-wide enrollment. In the last three school years, black students have made up more than 20% of all out-of-school suspensions.
Before announcing the shift, Haas said he thought about whether he would be creating more harm by singling out a group of students.
“However, I felt it was justified particularly given when you look at the overall history of the school system, the way we lagged with desegregation, and the achievement gap issues that we have,” he said. “Much of it that’s the most intractable is still around working with black students. This is something that we can control. That decision of whether or not we are going to tell a student that they can’t come to school.”
As part of the review, each principal was sent a protocol to analyze their decision-making. He wrote in the document that the goal was to reduce out-of-school suspensions to only the most extremely dangerous situations.
“Like corporal punishment, out-of-school suspension — a form of exclusion — is a discipline method that has outlived its usage,” Haas wrote in the document.
The protocol encouraged principals to be proactive and to take steps to support students who are likely to be suspended out of school.
Students with disabilities and who are economically disadvantaged also are suspended at a greater rate, according to division data. Economically disadvantaged students accounted for 56% of students suspended last school year. Almost half of suspensions that school year involved a student with a disability. In the division overall, 13% of students have a disability and 31% are considered economically disadvantaged.
Suspension rates, particularly among African American children, has been a focus of statewide policy in recent years as well. In 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam signed bills that limited the amount of time children in grades pre-K through third grade can be suspended and limits the maximum amount of days a child can be suspended.
The protocol includes a series of questions for principals to think about the impact of an out-of-school suspension for the individual student.
“If you are going to do that for black students, you are going to do that for all your students,” Haas said.
The review entails a phone call to a senior leadership staff member who will ask what happened and why the principal wants to suspend the student.
Incidents involving one-sided physical attack or sexual assault along with the distribution or of drugs or alcohol are exempt from the review, according to division documents.
Haas said there are cases when a suspension is warranted in order to give the school time to put supports in place for students.
“For other things, like getting in a fight, instead of just pulling the trigger and sending the students home, it’s come to school tomorrow and we are going to have a plan and we are going to de-escalate this issue,” Haas said.
Haas said the next step in lowering suspensions involves giving teachers data on their own discipline referrals.
“That’s the next step because each principal is the judge, jury and executioner, but there is someone sending them the referrals and we need to figure that out,” Haas said. “It’s not enough to say we are going to work on the biases at the central level. It’s got to push down to the school.”
The division is working to hire a data specialist who compile information for different databases and create teacher-level dashboards.
Haas said that with better reports about discipline referrals, the division can identify which teachers need more support.