Local school districts shift focus in state where discipline data shows racial disparity

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There are some alarming new findings when it comes to the kind of punishment some kids in metro schools face.

An ACLU report finds black students are up to five times more likely to face suspension than their white peers. While disturbing, these numbers aren't new to school districts and are constantly driving new steps to reverse the troubling trend.

It sounds dramatic. But when a kid gets suspended from school, it's often called the start of the "school to prison" pipeline.

“A kid who is not in school is more likely to have infractions with law enforcement, is more likely to end up incarcerated later, is more likely to not complete high school and then of course college,” said Sara Baker, ACLU of Missouri's legislative and policy director.

So when the ACLU pored over data from the Office for Civil Rights and saw numbers pointing to high suspension rates in Missouri, it was troubling.

“Has it been a wake-up call to districts? Absolutely,” Baker said.

In the Kansas City area, the ACLU’s numbers show in Raytown and Hickman Mills schools, black students are up to five times more likely to face out-of-school suspension than their white classmates.

“I hate that it happened to my son,” parent Matthew Hill said.

Hill said his son Matthew Jr. has never been a trouble maker. But during his freshman year at Raytown South, he did something a lot of teens do: He pulled out his cell phone and recorded a fight. The punishment was a 10-day suspension.

“I thought that was really unfair,” Hill said.

That's because other students also filming the fight didn't get suspended. He fought the punishment, and the district allowed for in-school suspension.

But Hill was so upset that he ultimately transferred his son to another district.

“He was walking on eggshells around that school, and I don’t want him to feel like that. I want him to be worried about school, focused on school and not feeling like he has to worry about if he’s going to be discriminated against,” Hill said.

“While we’re not where we want to be, we have made great strides in the past few years,” said Carl Skinner, deputy superintendent of student services in the Hickman Mills School District.

“It is a tenuous balance we ride. We want students to be in school, but we also want to provide a safe and secure environment for all students, so everybody can be educated,” said Brian Huff, Raytown Schools associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Both Hickman Mills and Raytown have shifted their focus on dealing with student discipline, and it's not solely about ridding racial disparities. They want fewer suspensions for all students.

“We’re constantly doing things in the district to work with the adults, so in turn they work with students a little bit more so that we’re not as quick to write a referral to have a student go to the office,” Skinner said.

In Hickman Mills, discipline referrals have been cut in half in the past four years.

In Raytown, suspensions in that time are down 12 percent.

“We do not believe that you just remove kids and then you remove the problem out of Raytown. We believe all students are important, and we believe all students have desire to succeed and really deserve to succeed,” Huff said.

Both districts are doing more to address the whole student, too, in hopes of preventing problems.

“Sometimes a kid comes and is inappropriate in school because they might not have had breakfast. They might not now where they’re going to stay that night. They might not know where their parents are at right now. They might be moving from couch to couch at different houses and just trying to find the best way they can to survive,” Huff said.

In Raytown, that's led to a growing meal program. Not only can kids get breakfast and lunch, now every single middle and high school student leaves school with a sack lunch they can eat for dinner. The district's also offered medical and dental care and is even looking to get washers and dryers on campus.

“Some of our students have very simple issues of maybe just not having clean clothes. So they don’t come to school because they don`t have a good clean shirt, clean pants, whatever. So it’s a way of maintaining their dignity,” Huff said.

All of those are steps the ACLU says are needed to move forward.

“We want to make sure this is disrupted in Missouri so that more of our youth can flourish,” Baker said.

The ACLU is working with both districts to look at other things that might help, which could include training workshops, helping improve student discipline handbooks, and getting the community involved in citizen committees.

Hickman Mills and Raytown are also both growing their efforts toward restorative justice, which aims to teach kids how their actions impact others. And in Hickman Mills, the district is growing its mentorship program so students have positive role models in their lives.