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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Portland Public Schools leaders say data showing unequal discipline of students at school is an “urgent call for change.”
During a work session Tuesday, Jan. 10, Portland School Board members reviewed data on student discipline rates, inequities and patterns. The takeaway: students of color and those with disabilities in PPS are disproportionately given referrals or suspensions, compared with their white and non-disabled peers.
PPS data show Black students are disciplined at more than thrice the rate of white students. Native students are given referrals, suspension or expulsion two and a half times more often. Students with disabilities, including those who may have high levels of emotional dysregulation, face twice the number of disciplinary actions as their non-disabled peers.
Middle school students see the highest number of referrals, followed by elementary students.
“What’s most troubling about our data is that we know from research that there are strong links between school discipline, likelihood of dropping out and eventual arrest and possible incarceration,” Renard Adams, chief of research for PPS, told the board. “I believe these data are an urgent call for change in action and we are working hard to make a difference.”
Over the past four years, PPS has tried to change course. The district says it’s using evidence-based approaches to addressing bad behavior, moving away from in-school or at-home suspensions and implementing anti-bias and racial equity training for staff, in an effort to reduce the number of referrals written.
The number of students receiving referrals, suspensions and expulsions has declined steadily since 2019, going from nearly 40,000 total referrals issued in 2018-19, to 21,470 in 2021-22, but district leaders say PPS still has work to do.
In a 2022 reporting series, Pamplin Media Group reported on statewide efforts to move away from a “zero tolerance” approach to discipline in schools. PPS leaders said the district has been trying to implement restorative justice practices and lean less on punitive measures.
“There’s very little research that shows exclusionary discipline like suspension changes student behavior, especially when there’s substance use, and it can actually perpetuate drop out and it can actually increase substance use,” Brenda Martinek, the district’s former student support services director told Pamplin Media Group.
That doesn’t mean students aren’t held accountable for bad behavior. They’re more likely to have to confront it.
Jey Buno, chief of Student Support Services, said PPS uses student intervention teams as part of its Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. Intervention teams tailor their response, depending on the severity of a student’s behavior. Sometimes, students are paired with a counselor on campus. Other times, family is involved, or students may be offered extra intervention by outside specialists or mentor organizations.
“In PPS, we focus significantly on building relationship, doing community circle and providing accountability in support of students,” Buno said, noting schools have fewer discipline issues when students believe that school is safe and they feel a sense of belonging.
The bulk of the Jan. 10 discussion centered on student outcomes and racial disparities, but PPS board member Herman Greene said teachers play a critical role. Greene emphasized the need to coach teachers and school staff on implicit bias and cultural differences. Amid a flurry of data showing which students are most impacted, Greene asked for data on which teachers or school staffers were writing the most referrals.
“If we’re going to attack the issue, then we need to attack issues all the way around and hold the party responsible for making the accusation about the behavior,” Greene said. “How are we making sure that they get trained?”
Greene acknowledged upcoming labor negotiations between PPS and its teachers union.
“We need to start holding these white teachers accountable,” Greene said, bluntly. “Now, it’s safe for me to presume that the bulk of the people making the referrals are white because the bulk of the staff in our buildings is white. And so therefore, the person making the claim against (a) Black student is oftentimes a white person who is struggling with fear of this big Black student that happens to be in middle school. We need to call the baby ugly … and then we need to deal with it.”
School board Vice Chair Gary Hollands echoed Greene’s questions and sentiment.