INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Researchers, educators and a doctoral student seemed to echo the same message Tuesday: Indiana has a racial disparity when it comes to school discipline.
Speaking before a panel of lawmakers of the Interim Study Committee on Education, educators pointed to national data that claimed Indiana suspends more black male students than any other state – tied only with Missouri. Among their other claims, that state data from 2007 to 2012 shows that African-American students are consistently placed in both in-school and out-of-school suspension at higher rates than other ethnic groups.
Statistics like that – they say – can lead to possibly worse outcomes for students – such as increased drop out rates and run-ins with crime.
Nate Williams, a doctoral candidate in education at IUPUI, told the panel that “historically, there is an over representation of African-American and students receiving special needs services” who are disciplined.
Carole Craig with both the Greater Indianapolis NAACP and the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana warned that if Indiana’s current disparity is left unchecked, the state could run the risk of a federal intervention.
“Yes that does lead to a federal investigation by the federal government. And, of course, that’s already happened when it comes to special education and suspension,” Craig said when asked about the worst case scenarios.
But Craig coupled her statements with good news – that federal intervention can be avoided if schools and school districts take a proactive approach to adopting new discipline models. Some suggestions from her group have been increasing teacher and staff training, collecting better data on in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and exploring alternative methods to student discipline in lieu of suspensions and expulsions.
One possibly solution, as Williams pointed out, could be using the idea of “restorative justice,” which as he explained, involves talking to students about their adverse behaviors and addressing the problem with the student being disciplined.
But other Republican lawmakers expressed concerned that while the data may indicate a racial disparity, should blame be placed solely on the teachers and administrators? And beyond that, as Rep. Jim Lucas, R – Seymour asked, “Couldn’t tolerating negative behavior lead to more negative behavior?”
Williams replied: “There’s no research to support that.”
Dr. Russell Skiba, with the IU Equity Project, later told lawmakers that other school districts in Indiana – like Fort Wayne and South Bend – have seen some successes by adopting alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.
“We are in a tremendous shift in how the country view school discipline,” Skiba told the panel.
Keyshawn Young, a ninth grade student in the Indianapolis Public School system, and his mother, Keyuana, agreed to a recent interview with I-Team 8 on a day when Keyshawn was home from school.
He was assigned to do yard work instead of homework on this particular school day. It was a punishment from his mother, after he was suspended from school for the second time this school year. His first suspension, he admits, was for fighting with another student. This most recent suspension was for failing to leave the school office and talking back.
“I do a lot in school. I only fight and stuff when people put their hands on me. Only thing I really do is talk back to the teachers,” Young said. “(The teachers) always feel like they’re right. And they don’t know everything. And when I try to tell them that they’re wrong, that’s when they say that I’m being disrespectful to them.
“They always try to say I’m the problem just because I always get in trouble. Sometimes I am the problem but not all the time.”
Keyshawn says he bears “some” of the responsibility for his suspensions. But his mother claims her son, who takes part in special education services, is suspended too often because teachers can’t handle his behavior.
“I got him mentors, therapy, all kinds of things to steer him right,” Keyuana Young said.
“The school system, to me, they really don’t want to deal with (him). They just want to keep suspending (him),” Keyuana Young said. “The school year that just ended, he had 20 days of suspension, and he’s not supposed to have more than 10 because he has an IEP.”
As an African-American student who takes part in special education, the experts would agree Keyshawn Young fits the mold of Indiana’s racial disparity. And as a ninth grader, his suspension statistically means he’s more than doubled his risk for dropping out, data analysis provided to I-Team 8 points out.
That outcome is not something Keyshawn wants. Or so he claims. “I don’t know what else I’d do without school.” When a reporter pointed out that his behavior would indicate the opposite, he said “I know.”
Committee Vice Chair Sen. Dennis Kruse, R – Auburn, told I-Team 8 Tuesday’s session was more of an exploration into the issue, which could lead to a potential bill in the upcoming session.