During the 2010-11 school year, Akron Public Schools disciplined black students at the highest rate of the eight largest urban districts in Ohio.
That’s among many findings in a report released late last year by the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, a child advocacy organization, and the Ohio Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit law office defending low-income Ohioans.
Akron Public Schools administrators reviewed the report and vow to convene this month to address the high frequency of disciplining minority and other students.
The report, which analyzes state statistics, shows that Ohio’s black students are more than five times more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts. Researchers and advocates say that out-of-school disciplinary actions can hinder graduation rates and increase contact with the juvenile justice system.
“I would love to see this data, that we reported on, disappear,” said Sarah Biehl, an attorney at the Ohio Poverty Law Center.
As a whole, statewide disciplinary actions declined, but the disparity regarding minority students remains a key issue for Biehl and others.
Akron, along with Toledo, consistently lands at the top of her “worst” school districts list.
Akron schools have decreased suspensions and expulsions by more than 30 percent since the 2007-08 school year, according to Ohio Department of Education statistics.
About 80 percent of students, according to school officials, have no disciplinary infractions. But Akron remains 16th of 924 public school districts and charter schools in overall disciplinary action and leads the state’s largest urban centers in disciplining minority students, with about 97 disciplinary actions for every 100 black students.
“This has been a challenge for us across the years,” said Ellen McWilliams, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Akron Public Schools. She said the historically high disciplinary numbers warrant action.
Superintendent David James, who designates the district’s director of student services to administer expulsions, said that any action that merits expulsion is mandated by the code of student conduct. If a student brings a weapon to school or assaults a teacher, for instance, he or she will be recommended for expulsion.
“That’s a color-blind issue,” James said.
Males expelled more often
Since 2000, the district has issued 952 expulsions for black students and 142 expulsions for white students.
Males were expelled about twice as often as females every year until 2010-11, when the numbers flipped.
That year, 23 girls and 14 boys were expelled. Most expulsions were issued to sixth- through ninth-graders for fighting, usually involving a violent action or threat against a teacher.
McWilliams said the district has made a conscious effort in the past three years to curb these trends.
The district rewards students who exhibit good behavior and attempts to identify others who are at risk of being suspended or expelled. After these at-risk students are identified, educators and administrators assign mentors to build meaningful relationships. The district also cultivates partnerships with the local juvenile justice system, behavioral health agencies and social service organizations.
The Akron district’s Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) program, an offshoot of Ohio’s Race to the Top program, pairs students who have cognitive disabilities and behavioral issues with tutors and mentors. Students who participated in the CTAG program last year spent half as many days in out-of-school suspensions and showed gains in other areas, including testing and attendance.
The district also utilizes a handful of programs that offer an in-school alternative to expulsion for more than 160 elementary and high school students each year.
At the Akron Alternative Academy, about a dozen students expelled from an Akron high school cycle through a quiet classroom that offers independent study. At any given time, the program, known as Saturn, houses mostly black males between 14 and 22 years old.
Help at alternative school
One of those students, Leon Evans, entered the Saturn program less than two years ago after being expelled from Kenmore High School for pushing a teacher.
Evans, an 18-year-old black male, has a familiar story among Saturn students.
He came from a high school overflowing with students and distractions. It was easy to get in trouble and difficult to focus on classwork.
Districts with more than 1,000 students reported one disciplinary action for every four students, while districts with fewer than 1,000 students reported one disciplinary action for every six students, or nearly 50 percent less frequency.
“Unfortunately, any large setting is like that,” said Jessica Sax, dean of students at the Akron Alternative Academy.
But while larger districts administer more infractions, they also have more alternatives.
Districts with more than 1,000 students were nearly 2½ times more likely to provide an alternative to suspension or expulsion than districts with less than 1,000 students.
Still, not all students get another chance.
Evans knows other students, like him, who were expelled after being swallowed up in that sea of distractions. Many of those students, unlike Evans, didn’t stay in school.
In the 2010-11 school year, when Evans entered the Saturn program, 21 students withdrew from Akron Public Schools because of an expulsion; 13 of those students were black.
“They fell further behind,” Evans said of his former classmates.
Evans expresses optimism. The Saturn program and the stripped-down, diploma-driven curriculum at Akron Alternative Academy have kept him off the streets and on track to receive a high school diploma.
“Two years ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school,” Evans said. After graduating in June, he said he hopes to “get a job and go to college.”
The goal of programs like Saturn is to keep students out of what researchers and educators call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“Are we there yet? Absolutely not,” McWilliams said. “This is still a major, major problem for us.”
Behind the disparity
In the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for comparable data, black students made up less than half of Akron schools’ population but accounted for more than three-quarters of all disciplinary actions, including all of the district’s expulsions, according to ODE statistics.
The numbers cannot be defended, Biehl said.
“Anyone who tries to sugar-coat it is being dishonest,” she said.
Dan Rambler, Akron Public Schools director of student support services, agrees.
“I don’t know that there’s an explanation for [disproportionately disciplining minority students],” he said.
McWilliams and Rambler openly acknowledged the problem. They stress that fostering relationships with students could produce a school climate of respect and appreciation.
Still, officials lack a definite reason for disproportionately disciplining black students.
Biehl suggested the blame might rest on society and not necessarily with administrators or teachers.
“It’s a racist system. We create a social stereotype of what criminals look like: a young, black man,” she said.
Kids face difficult odds
Advocates and school administrators acknowledge that minority students often struggle with poverty, food insecurity and might receive minimal support from their parents and community.
According to U.S. Census data, blacks are twice as likely as whites to be living in poverty in Akron.
“I do think that poverty is a huge factor in outcomes,” said Jason Haas, president of the Akron Board of Education. “Unfortunately, we live in an area that has a high concentration of poverty.”
Haas has an educational background in behavioral science and tends to analyze socioeconomic factors that affect student outcomes.
“We know there are a lot of variables. Our children come with a lot of baggage,” board member the Rev. Curtis Walker told the public during a December meeting. “It’s not an easy issue. Race is not an easy issue. And we’ve got to deal with it.”
The economic factors of the district have taken a toll. An alternative to in-school suspension was cut from the elementary schools due to insufficient funding.
Walker also said that more “sensitivity” training is needed.
Ultimately, Walker and other members of the board of education agreed that something needs to be done.
“When you have a black eye, it’s very visible,” Walker said. “You can try to hide it, but it’s there.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.