For Michelle Rice’s son, the problems started when he was in fourth grade at a Kansas City charter school.
“He was under the supervision of a teacher who was Caucasian,” Rice says, “and regularly, he was either in the principal’s office or sent to the computer lab.”
The more time Marquelle spent out of class, the further behind he fell, and his behavior problems escalated. Soon, he was receiving out-of-school suspensions for what Rice describes as minor infractions.
“We’re not like, fist fighting,” says 13-year-old Marquelle, now a seventh grader at Central Middle School.
“There’s no fighting. There’s no gambling,” Rice says. “It’s mainly their mouth.”
Marquelle’s been suspended for talking, for ignoring his teacher, for watching videos on YouTube when he was supposed to be working.
“So you think that’s a good enough reason to be put out of class, out of school?” Rice asks her son.
“No,” says Marquelle.
Rice thought she’d have better luck with Marquelle’s principal at the time, a black man.
“I said, what is it that you’re doing for your black boys in this school to help them get through this stage?” Rice says.
The principal didn’t have any suggestions. Rice moved Marquelle out of that school.
Suspensions start much earlier
I reached out to Gus Jacob, a professor in UMKC’s School of Education, to see how common Marquelle’s experience is. He told me schools are suspending even younger students.
“You want to hear a bad statistic?” he asks. “Missouri has one of the highest rates of preschool suspension of black males in the United States.”
Not one of the highest. The highest. That’s according to a 2015 study out of the University of California, Los Angeles. And when schools have wide latitude to set their own discipline policies – which they do in Missouri – you end up with a population of students who’ve already been in three or four schools by first grade, Jacob says.
“We end up with children being put out of school or even removed from a school, and then they go to another school, and they have problems, then they end up in another school,” he says.
Our partners at St. Louis Public Radio reached out to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for suspension data for kids in kindergarten through third grade. Young black students make up just 17 percent of that population.
Yet they accounted for more than half of the K-3 suspensions doled out by schools in 2014-15.
Too many suspensions
In 2014-15, Kansas City Public Schools issued one out-of-school suspension issued for every four black students in the early grades.
That’s too many, says assistant superintendent Derald Davis. Last summer, he says the district looked at statewide discipline data and realized KCPS was part of the problem.
“Zero tolerance policies haven’t worked across the country,” Davis says, “and they haven’t worked for us in Kansas City Public Schools.”
KCPS expects every student to adhere to a code of conduct. But except in extreme cases – say, a child brings a weapon to school or starts a fire – Davis says KCPS has done away with automatic suspensions. Students can still get an out-of-school suspension, but only after they’d tried all other options.
“We have far fewer repeat behaviors as a result of us taking the time to address the situation appropriately,” Davis says. “It has drastically cut down on the number of infractions.”
Davis says suspensions are down a whopping 60 percent for the 2015-16 school year. But he thinks the district can do better. The goal for next year is to cut the number of suspensions in half again. And Davis wants to see KCPS do more to onboard teachers who haven’t worked in urban schools before.
Back when he was a principal, Davis says he’d often hear things like, “This student is being disrespectful because they won’t look at me. I don’t think they’re listening.” What teachers didn’t realize, he says, is that in some cultures, that’s actually a sign of respect.
Disparate discipline regimes
Don Haider-Markel is a political scientist at the University of Kansas who’s studied how different racial and ethnic groups perceive the fairness of school discipline.
“In schools where there’s a more diverse or higher student black population, overall the discipline regimes of those schools tend to be more severe,” Haider-Markel says.
It’s not just the race of the student, but the racial composition of the student body. Majority-black schools suspend white students at higher rates than majority-white schools. Haider-Markel says at majority-black schools, you’re going to see more detentions, more suspensions, more disciplinary actions overall.
What’s harder to untangle is if that’s because there are actually more problems, or just a disproportionate response.
“To simply suggest to people that their actions are racist or they’re discriminating against students I think would be an unfair characterization,” says Haider-Markel. “But that’s what most people hear when you say there might be implicit racial bias.”
In another study, Haider-Markel found that black students were more likely to perceive their punishments to be fair if they went to a school that employed diverse teachers.
Only there are fewer black and Hispanic teachers than there were a decade ago.
Urban kids are different
For her part, Michelle Rice says if KCPS’ discipline policy has changed, she hasn’t seen much of a difference. She says what Marquelle needs is a teacher who understands what life in the inner city looks like.
“Our home is peaceful, but our surroundings are crazy,” says Rice of her Northeast neighborhood. “So he could be up in the middle of the night because he heard gunshots.”
Rice has started sending Marquelle to school with gum. She tells him to chew when he gets the urge to talk.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.